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Scriptwriter Elodie Namer’s debut feature is a comedic drama set in the insular world of international chess competitions among a mostly male coterie of professionals and enthusiasts. While the strategic board game itself will be familiar to many, the passions and obsessions of the film’s competitors may sometimes seem a bit obscure, but a playful tone and an attractive young cast could draw attention domestically and help the feature extend festival play overseas.
Maintaining his status as the reigning international chess champion hasn’t given Cal Fournier (Michelangelo Passaniti) much of a chance to grow up, so at 22 he still throws temper tantrums, pulls outrageous stunts and doesn’t hesitate to gloat or sulk as circumstances dictate. His coach Viktor (Magne-Havard Brekke) has seen it all, but now that Cal has reached the status of Grandmaster, Viktor is expecting significantly more maturity from his temperamental student, who’s on his way to becoming an anticipated world champion. At the Budapest Grand International Open, Cal is leading after the first round as usual, so Viktor makes him captain of the French team, a promotion that doesn’t much impress his girlfriend Lou (Lou de Laage), the only woman on the squad and his frequent competitor, although rarely his equal.
Cal’s typically intense focus gets shaken by Max (Adam Corbier), a nine-year-old Hungarian prodigy participating in the competition and beating men and women several times his age. After an unexpected encounter where Max bests Cal in a rapid-fire simulated game conducted entirely by verbalizing chessboard moves, Cal is so rattled he loses his game the next day, forcing Viktor to drop him from consideration for the next big tournament. Cal lashes out in anger, disrupting the concentration of his teammates, driving Lou away and damaging his prospects of winning the tournament. A thorough reassessment is clearly in order, but whether he can make the necessary changes to his personal and competitive style may depend on whether Cal can develop the maturity to appreciate chess from a kid’s perspective again.
Drawing on her personal experience as a chess player and skills developed while a TV writer to craft her first feature, Namer’s selection of the international tournament circuit as the setting for the film poses some specific challenges that she meets with a varying degree of accomplishment. Much like movies about novelists, externalizing the mental process of chess competitions requires an inventive perspective, which Namer competently achieves with some creative camera angles and mildly ambitious scripting that has Cal pushing the envelope of acceptable professional behavior.
Outside the competition hall, however, Cal and his teammates remain obsessed with the game, playing and practicing throughout their spare time, which leads to a certain visual and narrative monotony. Minor distractions offered by the hotel casino and admiring Eastern European female contestants feel more like padding than plot development, while Cal’s flirtation with a rebellious Hungarian chambermaid never achieves the degree of transcendence that Namer wishes to assign it.
Partly this is due to Passaniti’s frequently internalized performance, as well as the primarily confrontational but insubstantial role assigned to Corbier as his young opponent. Meanwhile the lovely and accomplished de Laage languishes as Cal’s underappreciated love interest and potential chess rival. With the unfamiliar stakes and the outcome of the plot resting on the results of a somewhat esoteric board-game competition, the characters’ weak bonds don’t add much cohesion to the plot either.
Production company: 24 Mai Productions
Cast: Michelangelo Passaniti, Lou de Laage, Magne-Havard Brekke, Adam Corbier
Director-writer: Elodie Namer
Producer: Lola Gans
Director of photography: Julien Poupard
Production designer: Emmanuelle Cuillery
Editors: Julien Ouvrard, Nicolas Desmaison
No rating, 83 minutes
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