Joueuse (Queen to Play) 2009 France (97 minutes) written and directed by Caroline Bottaro, who adapted the work from Bertina Henrichs’ novel La joueuse d’échecs.
This movie is more than a little bit improbable but quite good for all that.
Caroline Bottaro, a first-time French director, made the screenplay from a friend’s unpublished manuscript about a middle-aged hotel maid who masters chess. Bottaro cast a French star, some good character actors, locals, and a couple of American stars—well, okay, game American stars who speak French—and shot her film in Corsica.
Sandrine Bonnaire plays Hélène, a long self-denying, middle-aged French cleaning woman who, inspired by the exotic fantasy she experiences seeing an elegant, independent young American hotel guest (Jennifer Beals) play chess, resolves to learn to play.
Going against class, sex, and age expectations, Hélène masters chess by playing against Kevin Kline’s Docteur Kröger, a retired American academic and gruff reclusive widower living as an expat in Corsica whose house she cleans once a week.
The same imagination that showed Bottaro a film in this story and to cast it the way she has draws Hélène to the possibility of chess and makes her a good player. In essence, Bottaro’s two pointedly mismatched leads give each other second chances by helping each other recover something each thought he had lost.
The result is a nice story with a light touch and a range of good performances, from Kline’s finely understated amused and intrigued melancholic professor to Bonnaire’s method-like absorption in a character who has hid her candle under a bushel until this now-or-never moment broke upon her like a kind of madness—folle des échecs, as her friends and neighbors say.
Also of note are Francis Renaud as Ange, Hélène’s uncomprehending but congenial working class husband, and Alexandra Gentil as their teenage daughter Lisa.
The chess games are authentic: Bottaro used the French Chess Federation as consultants and Léo Battesti, president of the Corsican Chess League, appears as one of the players.