“QUEEN TO PLAY” My rating: B+
97 minutes | No MPAA rating | French with subtitles.
“Queen to Play” is a devastatingly romantic movie about a woman falling in love.
Not with a man. With the game of chess. And with herself.
Sandrine Bonnaire (“Vagabond,” “M. Hire”) is Helene, a working-class wife and mother. Her husband Ange (Francis Renaud) works construction, while Helene is a maid at a small hotel on their spectacularly beautiful island of Corsica. She also cleans houses.
Early in Caroline Bottaro’s debut feature, Helene is making a guest room bed while out on the balcony a handsome couple are playing chess (the woman is Jennifer Beals of “Flashdance” fame).
Helene is fascinated by the obviously erotic undercurrents to their game — especially when the woman wins and claims as her prize what we’re pretty sure is going to be a memorable sexual experience.
Figuring her own drab life could use a shot of something, anything, Helene buys Ange an electronic chess board for his birthday. He has no interest in the gift, but Helene begins burning the midnight oil learning the game. She gets so obsessed that any checkered pattern — a restaurant tablecloth or a tiled floor — sets her to imagining various moves and ploys.
She especially likes the idea that in chess, the queen is the most important piece.
One of her private cleaning customers is Dr. Kroeger (Kevin Kline, speaking French), a retired American professor and widower. The bearded, shaggy Kroeger is a crusty, surly sort, but when he discovers Helene staring longingly at his rarely-used chess board, he agrees to teach her the finer points of the game.
Despite the age difference and Kroeger’s failing health, their sessions take on a sexual subtext (think Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle). It’s a chaste relationship but Ange, puzzled by his wife’s late nights and unexplained absences, is sure he’s being cuckolded. The local rumor mill is in overdrive.
Undeterred, the newly-empowered Helene (she’s actually good at something) takes a leap by signing up for a regional chess tournament. Can she hold her own against the big boys?
While Kline is terrific as the irascible Kroeger, it’s Bonnaire who fuels this lovely confection. She’s not what you’d call beautiful but she is striking. And when she finally smiles with satisfaction, “Queen to Play” practically bursts into flame.
This is a terrifically quiet performance that blossoms at just the right moments to reveal a previously unexceptional individual suddenly coming into her own. And, man, does it feel good.
| Robert W. Butler