One of the few times I played chess I lost in four moves. Humiliated I never tried again. After seeing Caroline Bottaro’s female empowering film, Queen to Play, I want to reconsider my easily accepted defeat and try all over again.
Here is a film that lays out an unlikely scenario about a housekeeper Helene, (Sandrine Bonnaire) who views a glamorous hotel couple playing chess, and decides to learn the game. Maybe the sexy couple inspires her or she’s feeling ignored by her husband who stays out late with his friends. Either way she is compelled to teach herself chess.
When her late night self tutorials are not working she turns to one of her clients, bookish Dr. Kroger (Kevin Kline) to help her on the journey. Although the screenplay hints that a potential romance might ensue, it's really gaining knowledge about the game that’s motivating her. Instead of complicating the story by a tortured tale of adultery, screenwriter-director Bottaro makes the storyline an inspiring story of a woman’s intellectual growth.
Helene wins the local competition and is seen at the end of the film riding out in the sunset to conquer a national contest. Helene’s middle-aged decision to lighten up her monotonous life turns out to empower her. And us, the female audience members were cheering her.
Curiously the female of the couple Helene saw playing chess in the hotel was actress Jennifer Beals. It was Beals who in 1983 played the working class welder and exotic dancer in Flashdance who aspired to become a ballet dancer. Appears that Beals is returning the cinematic favor to inspire a French working class movie character achieve a more sophisticated avenue.
And who knows maybe I will try another round of chess even though I could never achieve Helene’s success.
Queen to Play is playing in select cities. Info here.
Aviva Kempner is the director of Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg, The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and Partisans of Vilna.