September 1, 2011

Pushing Pawns

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The threat is more powerful than the execution. That’s just one pearl of wisdom that the reclusive American doctor Kroger (Kevin Kline) imparts to his cleaning lady Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire). It’s a piece of advice that director Caroline Bottaro follows quite successfully in Queen to Play. Winner of the Bill Mueller Excellence in Screenwriting Award at the 2011 Sedona International Film Festival, Queen to Play is remarkably suggestive and suspenseful. While chess is clearly the central motif (chess imagery parades endlessly throughout the film), the film is perhaps more analogous to a candle flame. The possibility of happy endings flicker throughout the film, and at the conclusion, it’s uncertain if the characters can achieve a lasting contentment. While the cast is stellar (Kline plays a dependably mellow and thoughtful Kroger), Bonnaire particularly excels in this film. Her expressions flicker, but with great intensity. She deftly changes from being deeply anxious to girlishly happy throughout her chess games with Kroger.

Based on Bertina Henrichs’ novel La Joueuse d’echec (The Chess Player), Queen to Play recounts the story of Helene, a working class Corsican cleaning lady. While tidying the bedroom of an American couple, Helene is swept away by the couple’s intimate game of chess. It is love at first sight. Helene dreams of being the American lady, cultured, affluent and loved (arguably, Helene is well loved by her husband). Eventually, Helene convinces one of her employers, the reclusive Doctor Kroger, to give her chess lessons. It’s quickly apparent from their weekly chess lessons that Helene is gifted at the game. So Kroger trains her for bigger and better things. Sounds like a fairy tale? Well, not quite. For Helene, it’s as if she has eaten from the tree of knowledge and can never return to her former life. Whether Helene’s newfound knowledge is for the best is left ambiguous.

If all this sounds familiar, then it probably is. Several scenes seem to have jumped right out of My Fair Lady, the musical dramatization of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (the latter has also been contemplated repeatedly in poems, sculptures and paintings). It’s not hard to imagine Helene echoing Audrey Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle. Eliza throws a slipper at the professor who transformed her from a flower girl to a lady in a flower shop and shouts, “You selfish brute. Why didn’t you leave me where you picked me out of — in the gutter?” Helene is similarly outraged when she thinks Kroger merely views her as his cleaning lady and “plaything.” Much to his surprise, she wields the vacuum cleaner with exceptional violence one day. When prodded, she brusquely replies that she resents how Kroger merely stated that she was his cleaning lady in the letter he wrote to for her chess tournament entry. It’s startlingly poignant when Kroger gently admits that her anger is justified, but at the same time, he merely stated the truth.

Helene lives and breathes chess, and Bottaro ensures that you never forget that (although sometimes you might wish that she would). Her budding love for chess is extremely problematic, as it leaves several broken hearts in its wake. Her obsession becomes crippling; she neglects her friends, family and work because she spends so much of her time playing or dreaming about chess. She begins to see chess everywhere till it threatens to destroy the simple life she has so carefully preserved for years. At a rare romantic dinner out with her husband, Helene is visibly abstracted while her husband speaks in heartfelt torrents. Helene molds food scraps into stubby chess pieces and moves them across the table, although one wonders if Helene is merely dreaming about chess rather than really plotting chess strategies. That’s an important question the film quickly raises. Is Helene in love with playing chess or the ideals that chess represents? Is Helene still in love with her husband and the reality they have built? There is something sad and inevitable yet infinitely gentle in that scene of endearment and entrapment.

It’s tempting to say that chess imagery is overdone. But the subtlety of emotion in the film suggests that the deluge is intentional. This lets us question what chess symbolizes in the film. One obvious possibility is that chess stands for the bourgeois life of affluence and culture that Helene had dream about, but had to give up when she married into a working class family. If the film casts Helene’s success as commendable, then what about others, who try as hard but turn out not to be diamonds in the rough? Or is the attempt to challenge oneself, the desire for a better life already good enough? Is the film, then, an ode to noble acts that reinforce bravery and dignity?

One thing is clear, however. By making us think about these things, Bottaro has succeeded in making us pawns in her game.

Original Author: Daveen Koh