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...