When the queen plays: a review of the French film Joueuse

by Nickie Wang

In chess, the queen is the most powerful piece. She can move up and down, back and forth, and criss-cross the board.

At a very young age, my father taught me how to play chess. I guess he wanted me to be a chess wizard so he motivated me by telling that chess has a genuine effect on the way one person thinks; “he will be a wiser person” were his exact words. 

The first lesson started with the basics, from setting up the board to identifying the moves unique to every piece. He reminded me all the time that the queen is the most powerful piece in this mind sport because it can move vertically, horizontally or diagonally.

No matter how patient my father was teaching me the tricks, still I didn’t get the idea why I have to sit for a long time just to master the game. I even told him it’s enough that I know the fundamentals, I don’t want to be a chess champion anyway.

Recently, I saw a light hearted drama that centers on the board game, you guess it right—chess. It’s a French movie helmed by French-German filmmaker Caroline Bottaro. Titled Joueuse (literally means player), the movie took me to a very familiar scene when my father was giving me my first chess lesson.

In the movie, the main character named Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire) bought an electronic chessboard as present to her husband Ange, a dockerman. She did hoping that the classic game would reignite their lackluster marriage. When her husband expressed no interest in learning the game, she tried to teach herself, and eventually developed a very strong fascination to the classic checkerboard game.

In the beginning, Helene is depicted as contended wife and a mother to a teenager. She works as chambermaid and a part-time house cleaner. Living a poor and customary life in the quaint city of Corsica, she almost seemed satisfied tidying and making rooms every single day. But her routinary life made a full 360 turn after seeing a lovely couple played chess while drinking champagne on a sunny balcony overlooking the sea. She couldn’t get off her eyes on the romantic couple who are depicted as somewhere in trance.

Studying and playing the complex game alone, Helene felt that she needed to advance in this newfound hobby. Hence, she sought for the help of Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline), a retired American professor whom she also works for. She volunteered to clean his house in exchange for a weekly chess classes. And as an eager learner, she became a pro in no time.

Dr. Kröger then convinced Helena to join a local tourney, which she would later win. From that moment on, like a queen on the chessboard, Helena was able to make her life works the way she has planned it to be. Even her husband who does not initially exhibit lustful desires of her was converted into an avid admirer.

Joueuse is a film that is hard to ignore. First, it is a social commentary that highlights the harsh reality of being an average wage earner. Secondly, it ushers the viewers to join the character in her journey in finding her power and freedom. Lastly, it emphasizes how good acting can show different kinds of emotions without elaborate movements or heavy movie lines.

A toast to French films

Joueuse, internationally titled Queen to Play, is one of the features in the annual French Film Festival hosted by Shang Cineplex. The festival runs from June 1 to 19.

Now on its 16th year, a fascinating selection of contemporary French films that have been featured in different international festival will be exhibited.

The opening feature is Le Marquis, a film shot in Cebu in 2010. This movie, that marks the first film co-production between the Philippines and France, tells the tale of the salesman-turned-prisoner Thomas Gardesse, who calls himself “The Marquis” to gain his inmates’ respect. Soon, he is hunted down to mastermind a robbery in Manila.

The festival also pays tribute to Filipino director Auraeus Solito, whose latest work Busong was screened at the Cannes Film Festival this year as part of the Directors’ Fortnight. Auraeus Solito’s films will be shown exclusively on June 12, the Philippine Day of Independence. Traditionally, the French Film Festival pays tribute to Philippine cinema by featuring films by Filipino directors who have been invited to France by prestigious festivals like the Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival and the Cannes Film Festival.

This year’s festival lineup includes L’autre (The Other One), La Tête de Maman (Mother’s Smile, Un poison violent (Love Like Poison, Dernier des fous (The Last among the Crazy Ones) , Les enfants de Timpelbach (Trouble at Timpeltill), Dans les Cordes (Inside the Ring), 7 ans (7 ears), Adèle: Rise of the Mummy , Arthur 2: The Revenge of Maltazard. , À Nos Amours (To Our Loves), Sans Toit Ni Loi (Vagabond) , La Cérémonie (A Judgment in Stone), Mademoiselle, and  Elle S’appelle Sabine (Her Name is Sabine).

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