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Monday, January 28, 2013

"Queen to Play": Cleaning Woman Discovers Passion and Dignity Through Chess

"Queen to Play" is a sweet, small, powerful film about a cleaning woman's discovery of passion and dignity through chess. Sandrine Bonnaire plays Helene, a 40 something cleaning woman on the tourist island of Corsica. She's got a nice, handsome, construction worker husband, a snotty teenage daughter struggling through growing pains, an imperious boss at a resort hotel, and a quiet, reasonable, low-rent life.

One day Helene picks up the game of chess, and everything changes. Chess engages her mind and passion. For the sake of learning more about the game, she does things she never would have done, otherwise. She asks a man she cleans for, Dr. Kroger (Kevin Kline) to play with her. The grouchy older man rebuffs her at first, but she offers to clean for free, and he accepts. "Do you always look at people as if your life depended on their answer to your question?" Dr. Kroger asks her.

In fact Helene's life does depend on her newfound passion for chess. Helene demands time to learn about the game. She is distracted in conversations were before she might have listened more sympathetically or joined in petty, local gossip. She schedules hours alone with a man. She answers back to demanding customers at the resort. She snaps at her family, "Would it kill you to cook your own dinner for one night?" Just who does Helene think she is? She is, after all, only a cleaning woman, the chess club president reminds her. His arrogance will not serve him well when he butts up against Helene.

"Queen to Play" is a small film. The script is spare. The film is lovely but not spectacular. Sandrine Bonnaire's great beauty and her performance are its best special effect. I wish there had been a bit more depth and development. But what is here is really powerful. We've gotten so used, in the US, to thinking of injustice and prejudice as being, primarily, about black versus white. "Queen to Play" shows how being a cleaning woman is itself a handicap in society, how expectations can squash a human being, and the price people pay for even the most simple gesture of coloring outside the lines of others' expectations. I admire and like Helene as I do few other film heroines. And I'd love to see Bonnaire play a saint someday. Her face is made for it.


  1. I'll watch for this movie. Many family members worked as cleaners. The poem I had hoped to post about my paternal grandmother, Janina's mother, "The Map Is Not the Territory" is no longer available on line. Both web sites that had featured it - Pemmican and the Ambassador Poetry Project - are no longer functioning. There is no archive of work on either site. Unfortunately this often happens to my work. The poem also appears in my very very limited edition chapbook How to Measure the Darkness. Christina Pacosz

    1. You can post it here if you like. I'd be honored.