Sunday, January 29, 2012

Two Queens to Play at Tribeca Film Festival

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Two Queens to Play at Tribeca Film Festival

(from, 5/11/09)

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I have been a huge fan of French actress Sandrine Bonnaire since she burst onto the scene as a troubled teen in Maurice Pialat's sobering "A nos amours" (1983) and the ill-fated young woman in Agnes Varda's "Vagabond" (1985), two post-New Wave classics. An untrained actress, she seemed to know her troubled characters inside out, as if she'd lived in their shoes and even when she smiled we could sense the darker emotions swirling in their heads. Over the last twenty-five years, she became one of her country's most appealing leading ladies, turning in fascinating performances in such diverse films as "Police," "Monsieur Hire," " La crmonie," and "Intimate Strangers," all of which played in America. So for me it was the highlight of the recent Tribeca Film Festival to interview and hang out with her and Caroline Bottaro, the director-writer of her charming new feminist film, "Queen to Play," which was well received at its public screenings. Once again Bonnaire gives a captivating performance as a chambermaid at a Corsican hotel who asks a reclusive widower, Dr. Kroger (Kevin Kline speaking French) to teach her chess, making her insecure husband, daughter, and boss uneasy. It's a very accessible film, so one would think an American distributor would snap it up, allowing Bonnaire to become better known and more appreciated outside the art film circuit.
Danny Peary: Sandrine, are you known in France for the same films you're known for in America?
Sandrine Bonnaire: I'm probably known best for "Vagabond," Claude Chabrol's "La crmonie," but there are so many films I've done there since starting out. Maybe Americans don't really know "Est-Ouest" "Joan of Arc," or "A Simple Heart."
DP: Is it harder for you now or when you started out?
SB: It's harder for me now because then I didn't know what I was doing and didn't worry about getting it all perfect. But then it was hard to be at parties or talk to the press because I didn't know anything about movies and didn't want to be ridiculous. It's like my character in this movie, I had no experience. So I started going to a lot of movies, classical movies, mostly American movies.
DP: Caroline, Jennifer Beals plays the woman Helene sees playing somewhat erotic chess as she cleans a room. At first I assumed she was a muse but then wondered if you were in fact referencing "Flashdance," another film about the woman who realizes her lofty dreams?
Caroline Bottaro: In fact I thought of "Queen to Play," as a different version of "Flashdance." Helene doesn't dance, but plays chess, but it's a dream for both.
DP: The film I really think about is "Educating Rita," about a woman who gains power, enlightenment and confidence through knowledge, and eventually goes beyond the mentor who taught her to appreciate literature.
CB: I never saw that film. But "Finding Forrester" is similar.
DP: I thought of "Educating Rita" when Helene says, "I never read." Why did she never read? Is it the fear of upsetting her life with her husband, as it does with Rita?
SB: She doesn't have time to read. She works a lot--she cleans at the hotel, she cleans Kroger's house, and she comes home to take care of her family. She hasn't had time for herself since she met her husband. I think she put her life to the side when she met him.
CB: I agree with what Sandrine said. I think that this woman put part of her life on hold when she met her husband. She left everything behind. She says she would wait around all day for her husband to come home. There's a scene where she dances and you can imagine that she danced and had all kinds of passions that she set aside and all kinds of dreams that she never fulfilled. She just took on that wifely role.
DP: We see Helene riding her bicycle by the gorgeous sea at the beginning and later in the film. What is on her mind, including chess moves?
SB: At the beginning, it's part of her daily routine. After she meets Kroger and he teaches her chess, she doesn't take her bicycling the same way. She really takes time to breathe, to look at sea. Yes, she probably also thinks of chess moves.
DP: Sandrine, would Helene be satisfied to play to a draw in the chess tournament or does she have to win?
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SB: Whether she wins or doesn't win isn't that important. What is important is to really live out her passion to the fullest extent.
DP: The word used in the subtitles is "fulfillment." Helene is not really unhappy, but she's obviously not fulfilled.
CB: That's something she finds out after seeing that couple playing chess through the window. As you say, it's not that she is bored with her life or sad in her life. It's about something she didn't know was in her. Seeing them, she makes a new discovery about herself.
DP: In films having to do with the empowerment of women, the female protagonist usually has a husband who feels inadequate. The woman's empowerment would lift the husband, but he resists. This film is about taking risks in order to succeed, so is Hlne's marriage at risk because she won't give up chess and he can't handle that?
CB I don't see this as a story about the empowerment of women or her taking back the power because it's not something she actually chooses. The "affair" with Kroger happens to her in spite of herself--she can't give up chess.
DP: But she is partly drawn to chess because the queen is the most powerful piece. She is intrigued by that concept.
CB: Yes, but I don't think she's making an intellectual choice to make herself more powerful in her life or marriage. Her choice to pursue chess and the "affair" is because of what she feels about her life. It's all about feelings.
DP: Is that "feeling" hers alone or is it something you think all women have?
CB: All women. When you ask about whether her marriage is going to survive I think of the line in the film that says: if you don't take a risk, you may lose but if you don't take that risk you will lose for sure. Helene does take that risk. She wins just by pursuing her dream. Her husband at the beginning of the movie wasn't even looking at her anymore. She was almost transparent. She pursues her dream of playing chess and he eventually looks at her with a lot of love. So she has won back the love of her husband and everybody around her becomes better through what she does. By taking that risk, she has actually enriched the lives of everybody around her. That's what matters.
DP: I'd describe her at the beginning as somebody who plays a supporting role in her own life, rather than the lead. Is that accurate?
CB: As you say, at the beginning she was always sort of a secondary or supporting person in her life, whereas by the end of the film she is the protagonist in her life and everybody around her who was initially scared about what she was doing, is there cheering for her. She now has the leading role in her life.
DP: What is the pivotal moment in that film for both of you?
SB: I think it is the moment in which she dares to confront Kroger, saying "You are going to teach me chess." It's when she says "I'm not only the maid," but also a human being and a woman. She's saying to him that she knows he sees her one way, but that she'll show him that she's something elseand I dare you to teach me chess." For me that's the moment of change..
CB: I agree absolutely with what she said. But for me it's the scene between Kroger and Helene with the chess dialogue.
DP: When they go back and forth saying only chess moves, I was reminded me of "Sideways," when passionate talk about Merlot becomes erotic.
CB The difference is that in "Sideways" real words are used, while here it's numbers and letters. It's very theoretical and abstract, and she loves that way of communicating.
DP: It is sexual.
CB: If you think so.
DP: I think so. You think so. too.
CB: They don't do it physically, so they do it by playing the game.
DP: Do you both play chess?
SB: No, neither of us play. It's a shame but it's true.
CB: The image of chess in France is that it's democratic, but people become antisocial, obsessed and crazy playing it.
DP: There's a very talented baseball pitcher named Roy Halladay who took up chess a few years ago because he had a lot of free time between starts. And that's all he could think about and his pitching suffered and he had to eventually back away. It's like Hlne, who says, "I ruin everything."
SB: Yes, it's dangerous. I have a friend who played chess on the Internet. At the end she couldn't sleep.
DP: That's like your character. She even gets up in the middle of the night to play. As she becomes better at chess, she smiles more. In fact, it's an important plot point that she smiles. Sandine's smile is famous--so was the line in the script when Korger talks about Helene not smiling written with Sandrine in mind?
CB: In fact, the entire script was written for Sandrine. Nobody else could have played the part.
DP: Sandrine, was it a hard role for you to play or was it "I understand her right away?"
SB: It was not too hard to play. The only thing I worried about was that the audience
might be bored when I have those scenes of Helene learning to play chess alone. But the character was not difficult because I did understand her.
DP: For you to feel secure with the character, did you have to feel secure with Caroline as your director?
SB: Yeah. I've known her many years and we were very close when we prepared this movie. We worked on it for five years, and when she was building it, step by step, I was always there right beside her. So this film is like our baby. Last night she said that she is the mother and I am the father. It's quite true.
DP: Caroline, this is the first film you've directed after writing several screenplays. If you'd given this screenplay to a male director, do you see it being the same movie?
CB: Even if I had given to another woman director, it would have been a totally different film.
DP: Did you know Kevin Kline before making this film together?
CB: No. But I knew he spoke French. We sent him the script in French and he loved it and said yes. It was just like a dream getting him.
DP: Sandrine, to me it seems like you've come full circle, from playing a teenager to playing the mother of a teenage girl. Is it strange transition for you?
SB: Not at all. I loved working with Alexandra Gentil. She is so talented and understood everything very directly. I have made many movies with teenagers. And it is very simple to play a mother who has a daughter with problems because I am a mother with fifteen-year-old daughter. You say, "A nos amours" was realistic. But for me now, playing a mother is like life.

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