Queen to Play (Review)

French drama revels in the pleasures of chess

Superlative performances and a restrained directorial touch elevate this French drama from a schematic outline into a compelling story about a woman who gradually discovers horizons where previously she had seen none. Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a wife and mother who is employed as a maid in a tourist hotel on the island of Corsica. She is content with her life, and early in the movie states that her only ambitions — marrying her husband, Ange (Francis Renaud), whom she regards as quite handsome, and moving to town — have already been fulfilled.

Then one day while cleaning a hotel room, she spies its occupants on the balcony, engaged in a game of chess that exudes a playfulness both strategic and sexual. Something gains a foothold in her imagination and she keeps for herself the nightgown the woman (Jennifer Beals) leaves behind after checking out. Shortly thereafter, Helene buys her husband an electronic chess set, which she then uses to teach herself the game during the wee hours of the night. While working at her second job — cleaning the fusty residence of a gruff foreigner (Kevin Kline, speaking French only) she spots a chess set and implores him to play with her.

This appears to be the only assertive action she’s ever taken in her otherwise placid life. As time passes and her skill grows, the game consumes her imagination and develops into an overriding passion. That’s about it as far as the plot goes. The subject is sure to be catnip to avid chess players, although the difficulties of conveying the pleasures of chess onscreen are not fully conquered by first-time feature director Caroline Bottaro. Still, she's wise to keep the focus on the actors rather than the chessboard.

Bonnaire, a two-time César winner, is an encyclopedia of controlled emotions, and when she lets loose with a smile of satisfaction or anticipation, it’s as if the curtains are rising on a whole new dawn. Her progression is a marvel to observe, mostly because she gives only hints rather than full expressions.

Bottaro sometimes overdoes the story’s metaphorical touches, as when the checkerboard floor Helene mops becomes a giant set-piece or as the idea of the queen being the most powerful chess figure takes root in Héeene’s self-effacing nature. Queen to Play, however, competes on a very high level as a story of an inner journey that’s not simply black-and-white. Grade: B

Opens July 22. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.
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