Queen to Play (Zeitgeist Films, NR)

Her mastery of the game inspires those around her, especially transforming her relationship with her husband.




French import Queen to Play is a perfectly enjoyable romantic comedy that finds hotel maid Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire) unexpectedly jolted from her daily doldrums after secretly observing an American couple engaging in a surprisingly passionate game of chess. Yes, chess, that game with the board and the pieces, generally associated with nerds. Of course, if your opponent was Jennifer Beals, you might get pretty passionate about it as well. Yearning for something new in her life, Hélène latches onto chess. She gives her dockworker husband an electronic chess game for his birthday, which he does not appreciate. Annoyed by his rebuff, she takes to mastering the game herself. She is helped along the way by another cleaning client, an enigmatic American doctor played by Kevin Kline (fantastic in a French-only role).

Chess consumes and transforms Hélène’s life. Maneuvering pieces on the board helps her see how to navigate real life. She begins to anticipate the moves of and shrewdly outwit her real life opponents at work and in her personal life. She comes to relish the anticipation between the moves of the game and to appreciate what she gains even in losing efforts. Her mastery of the game inspires those around her, especially transforming her relationship with her husband.

It was a pleasure to see Queen to Play again under slightly more relaxed circumstances than when I reviewed it (among a dozen other films) for the St. Louis International Film Festival last November. As I said at the time, as a reformed high school chess team member, I found it nice to see the game in the life of a “real” person and not just treated as the province of the abnormally smart or the just plain abnormal.

It is also interesting to examine this film against other romantic comedies. Name the last romantic comedy you attended (or even heard of) that featured no sex, no adultery, and no nudity, at the end of which the characters return to their preexisting, conventional relationships, and yet one that is undeniably romantically if not somewhat erotically charged. The film is also no dull morality play (did I mention it is from France?) and is very much an adult work. Issues of middle age angst, marital entropy, gender politics, and socio-economic class struggle all simmer below the surface and flow throw the lives of the main characters—if they are somewhat tidily dealt with by the plucky protagonist (did I mention it was a romantic comedy?). | Joe Hodes


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