Joueuse (Queen to Play)

2009. 101 minutes. Unrated.

I can’t play chess in my head. I’m a poor strategist. I didn’t even discover castling until college. But I know the basic moves of chess, and I love the IDEA of chess as foreplay, and it works pretty well in this French romantic comedy, even if the endgame is (satisfyingly!) predictable.

Jouese movie still


This is the second French romantic comedy I’ve seen, and something about them leaves me a little cold. Are French women just too polished and sophisticated for me to relate to? They aren’t real to me in the way that American women in American romantic comedies are. I want to be buddies with Drew Barrymore (who insists that there is a scene that shows women eating real food — not salads–in every film) and genuine, girl-next-door Jennifer Garner. Something about their untouchable beauty puts me off. Or, maybe it’s the smoking. Disgusting.

Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire) moved to the isolated isle of Corsica to be married, and her teenage daughter can’t wait to get off the island – she frequently shouts about how she wants to avoid her parent’s fate of a life of poverty. Perhaps it is this, coupled with watching two lovers playing chess on the balcony at the hotel where she works, that drives Helene’s restless desire to fill her life with something.

When an attempt to engage her shipbuilder husband Ange (Francis Renaud) in the of game of chess fails, she teaches herself, but finds an electronic device a poor substitute for a flesh and blood person. She implores the American ex-pat who employs her in a side cleaning job to instruct her. At first, Dr. Kroeger (Kevin Kline, in his first French-speaking film role) is cantankerous, but the two warm to one another (of course). He gives her books (and reads aloud to her! swoon) and encouragement. Kline’s deadpan delivery and cranky character add a level of humor to the film; Bonnaire is luminous.

Things I loved:

The Visual Clues
Director Caroline Bottaro shines at giving neat little visual clues to advance the plot. As Helene learns chess at the hands of Dr. Kroeger, the passing of time is indicated with the characters posed in the exact same positions but wearing different clothes to signify a different day. It’s a very clever device.

Helene’s hubby Ange spends a lot of time with friends, playing backgammon with someone named Jacky. About 3/4 of the way through the film, when we learn who Jacky is, our assumptions get turned upside down. This three-second scene then flavors everything we thought we knew about a complex marriage.

Corsica, for those of you who don’t know, is in France, not Italy or Greece. The scenery is just lush and gorgeous. The sun-drenched hills and sea is an idyllic backdrop for a fresh story. The setting juxtaposes Helene’s impoverishment with her aspirations pretty well.

Female Empowerment
She doesn’t LOOK young enough to have a teenage daughter, but Helene is, nonetheless, a middle-aged heroine of a romantic comedy. She gains strength throughout the film, and the title is perfect (the queen is, of course, the most powerful piece on the board). There is a price to pay, though. I found the sex scene between Helene and Ange to be akin to rape (she says “Don’t” at least three times before succumbing), and am not sure where the director was going with this; it was the antithesis of control.

The ambiguity of the Kroeger/Helene relationship lends itself well to discourse. Were they lovers, or not? If so, it was tastefully left off-camera for the viewer to envision. If they did do it, was it on his terms, or hers? If it was inevitable that they would consummate their relationship, why does she choose to leave (albeit, after deliberately staying late and having a drink) the night he makes a pass at her, and if they didn’t do then, why is the scene in which they play chess without a board so steamy and intimate, though they never physically touch? The kiss she gives him at the end is that of a lover saying goodbye, not of a friend and mentor. Rich fodder for discussion, indeed.

Author: Beth G.

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