Despite its familiarity, Caroline Bottaro’s Queen to Play manages to be a tender and involving tale of self-discovery. All the expected beats are hit on the way there, but solid performances and a thoughtful approach to the material make for an enjoyable, if not groundbreaking, film.
Sandrine Bonnaire stars as Hélène, a maid on the Isle of Corsica. One day, when cleaning a room at the hotel where she works, she sees a couple (Jennifer Beals, Dominic Gould) playing chess on the balcony, and she’s instantly captivated. There’s a sensuality in their playing, and Hélène becomes smitten with the possibilities that chess opens up to her.
She begins to play in earnest, much to the bewilderment of her husband, Ange (Francis Renaud), and teenage daughter (Alexandra Gentil). A working class family, they’re struggling to simply make ends meet, and the game seems like an unnecessary distraction. But Hélène presses on, eventually coaxing the antisocial American doctor she works for, Kröger (Kevin Kline, in his first French-speaking role), to teach her.
Queen to Play is fairly ordinary for its first half, with Bottarro’s script setting up easily identifiable obstacles for Hélène and giving her a clear path to overcome them. Playing chess is clearly a cipher for individuality and independence for Hélène, whose life has been mostly defined by her husband and family’s needs up to this point.
But despite a climax that includes a chess tournament, the film strays from convention and becomes more ambivalent about Hélène’s state. It doesn’t crescendo on a false note of uplift. In fact, the film becomes almost downright melancholy, quietly signaling Hélène’s growing, but impossible attraction to Kröger without overselling it.
Bonnaire constantly keeps the film engaging even at its most routine, imbuing Hélène with openness and quiet hopefulness. Kline is rather restrained, not depending on the various tics that generally make him such an appealing performer. While the mercurial teacher character is hardly a new idea, Kline adds a layer of vulnerability that keeps things interesting, even if the character is only vaguely sketched out.
Bottarro seems always willing to let scenes play out, and the many chess matches are given ample room to breathe. The unhurried pace and lack of grandstanding make Queen to Play a modest, but satisfying film.
Zeitgeist’s DVD of the film includes a 20-minute making-of with interviews with Kline, Bonnaire, Bottarro, Beals and Renaud, as well as the U.S. theatrical trailer. The package also includes an insert with a lengthy interview with Bottarro and Bonnaire.