Director Caroline Bottaro’s Queen to Play, which came out in the U.S. this year but debuted as the French film Joueuse (“Player”) in 2009, is a film of quiet revolution. It opens with the protagonist, Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire), going about her daily life in Corsica.
It’s a gorgeous setting for vacationers, but someone’s got to do the dirty work, and that falls to locals such as Hélène and her husband. He’s a construction worker and she’s a cleaning lady at a hotel. She also picks up after a professorial recluse, Dr. Kröger, played by Kevin Kline, who speaks French well, albeit with a slight American (or is it fictitious German?) accent.
As she’s tidying up the hotel one day, Hélène spots a glamorous woman beating her partner in a chess game. Jennifer Beals, who plays the American woman, is lovely as ever as she nears 50, and she has a natural French accent. The woman is Hélène’s ideal: smart, sensual, in control, and living a romantic life.
Hélène feels inspired to learn chess. She plays by herself at first, then asks Dr. Kröger to teach her so she can advance. The two develop a bond, and Hélène’s husband becomes jealous. At one point, her daughter storms in and swipes the chess board in a fit of anger over boy troubles, and Hélène decides to quit the game.
Her husband and daughter come around eventually, and she resumes playing. When Kröger senses she’s good enough, he encourages her to join a small tournament. The pressure of competition triggers her self-doubt and fear of failure. She’s just a cleaning lady–can she really play chess? Kröger says something to her that puts things in perspective, and she realizes she has to get out of her own way.
The plot advances slow and steady and the scenes have a pitch-perfect slice-of-daily-life quality that you almost don’t realize the richness of the story until the end. This film, based on a novel by Bertina Henrichs, invites reflection and shows how revelations can lead to change and persistence can lead to revolution.