Liberty is being free from the things we don't like in order to be slaves of the things we do like.--Ernest Benn

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Queen to Play

By high school standards I was an extremely mediocre chess player. despite the fact that I spent hours studying boards and texts, my game never attained enough critical mass to fuel ambition. My best performance was when our class champion, Clint, and I arranged to play a rehearsed and memorized game before a handful of unknowing classmates. As far as playing real games was concerned, I used to say that the only thing worse than losing to Clint in chess was beating him because you had to work so hard.

This all came back to me as we watched Queen to Play last night. Hélène, played by Sandrine Bonnaire, is cast as a Cinderella-like housekeeper at a luxury hotel in Corsica. She has a volatile teenage daughter and a husband who does the bottom work on yachts. As the film progresses, in her normal daytime work Hélène witnesses an intense game of chess between a sexy American couple who are guests at the hotel. When she see the woman (Jennifer Beal) win, Hélène is intrigued by the game. She decides to stretch household funds enough to buy a computerized game for her husband. When hubby turns out to be too stressed keeping his job and making a living at the boat yard to have any surplus energy for chess, Hélène begins to look into the rules. As soon as she makes the ominous discovery that the queen is the most powerful piece on the board, an increasing obsession with nighttime study and practice inevitably begins to affect her daytime work. Indeed, all of her relationships with her husband, daughter, employers and friends undergo profound changes.

She ultimately engages with a retired American doctor (Kevin Kline) to exchange housekeeping chores for chess lessons. When the doctor eventually begins losing games to her, Kline's character pronounces Hélène to be a natural talent, a quality which cannot be taught.

At this point in the movie, I catch a sense of foreshadowing and foreboding: in her pursuit of her own ultimate self-fulfillment, Hélène will embark on progressively greater and more ambitious challenges on the checkered board.

Or is it deja vu? Will she eventually discover as I did with Clint, that the only thing worse than losing at chess is winning. Or maybe not...


  1. Sounds like a great movie, will have to look for it.

    Its a sad statement but one of the happiest times in recent memory for me was the afternoon I actually beat the cheap Microsoft chess program that came with the family computer.

  2. Beach Bum, what happens when you beat the computer?

    Does the screen come up blue and filled with numbers?

  3. It does sound interesting. I'll check it out, thanks.

    My brother taught me play chess (and how to sail). I used to get into trouble for playing it at recess when I was in 5th and 6th grade (one was supposed to be playing sports I guess). I was never that good at chess, but still like to play.

    Armenia recently decided that chess will be a mandatory subject, taught 2 hours a week from age 6. Kids are always at the whim of adults - in my case: no, you can't play chess at recess; in Armenia: yes, you must play chess! No wonder we're all neurotic by the time we graduate.

  4. It's a love story, Only Helene falls in love with a game. She wants something of her own. She's isolated on an island, and she needs a medium with which she can cross an ocean into her more natural milieu. To become emancipated. It's also maybe about class struggle and chess is widely known as a bridge across intellectual and class strata, even ages, even continents. (Equipment is very cheap.) Chess is about life. It's elemental. In this game, there is no luck of the draw, good cards or bad. And no cheating. It's also both intellectual and intimate. Players communicate without words. Chess is brutal game in which the outcome promises an absolute standard of achievement. That's why very troubled people are drawn to it.

  5. I always thought there should only be one board game. Chess. For the courageous and inventive among us. For me and the rest of humanity who can't take the pressure and the intensity? For us, all other games played with cards and dice have been devised.