'Joueuse' is the promising first feature film signed by Caroline Bottaro, who also wrote the script from Bettina Henrichs' (first as well) novel 'La Joueuse d'Echecs'. The story revolves around Hélène, an unsatisfied woman with an undistinguished job (hotel maid). She has a kind husband but who has become aloof lately and a teenage daughter who is beginning to become rebellious. One day, while she is doing their room, she observes a loving couple while they are playing chess on the balcony. Fascinated by this handsome man and this beautiful woman obviously in love, having wonderful time together, she is so impressed that she unconsciously associates the happiness of the couple with chess. As a result she decides to learn the game and what better chess instructor could she have than Dr. Kröger, at whose house she does the housework? The trouble is that the retired American, a widower, is also a grumpy haughty misanthropist. But carried away by her determination she cajoles and coerces him into teaching her the subtleties of chess so much so that she becomes good and even surpasses her master's abilities. And not only does she become a champion but, after a period of tension, she gets reconciled with both her husband and daughter.
Summarized the way I have just done, 'Joueuse' could be either good or bad depending on the style (or lack of it) of its director. It could be heavy-handed, gushy or over-technical in the field of chess. Fortunately, Caroline Bottaro does not fall into any of these traps. On the contrary, she is a winner in every department.
First asset: the choice and direction of actors. Sandrine Bonnaire, to begin with, as fresh, sincere and beautiful as ever, is an ideal Hélèneall more as the actress has gone through basically the same destiny in real life as the fictional character she embodies (born into just another family, she blossomed into the great actress she is now). Less obvious is the choice of Kevin Kline as Helene's Pygmalion. But the result is fabulous: as the intelligent but bitter and lonely Dr. Kröger, he is totally convincing in his first performance in French. Well directed by Bottaro, he succeeds in making the evolution of his character from difficult and unpleasant to humane and respectful quite believable. But the magic of it all is the chemistry, both intellectual and sensual, that emanates from Kline and Bonnaire and unites them almost mystically. It is also a nice idea to have Jennifer Beals (the welder that escaped mediocrity through dance in 'Flashdance' back in 1983) pass the buck to Bonnaire.
Second quality, Catherine Bottaro films the games of chess very intelligently, capturing the suspense inherent in them without being too technical. I personally do not know much (to be fair, this is a blatant understatement) about chess but I never got bored so I presume you will not either. Two games are particularly exciting to watch: one played by proxy by Kline and Bonnaire and another one played by the same in which eroticism unexpectedly mixes with the intellectual pleasure of the game.
Thirdly, the social commentary (the description of the working conditions of the characters, the threat of unemployment, the new class struggle: the haves despising the have-nots) is quite relevant and, although only a secondary aspect of the film, adds authenticity to the story.
Last but not least, the writer/director is a past master at describing the development and side effects of a passion: because of it, Hélène becomes obsessed by chess, isolated from her family, cut off from her friends and less effective in her work. But Bottaro also shows how a passion, duly channeled by the person concerned and accepted by the persons close to her, can transcend her, turning the unsatisfied, frustrated, incomplete person she was at first into a fulfilled human being.
A very good self-discovery movie, set in an amazingly beautiful landscape (the Red Rocks in the Piana region in South Corsica), which is no bad thing. Not to be missed.