Queen to Play (2011): Caroline Bottaro’s Debut, Starring Sandrine Bonnaire and Kevin Kline

If you prefer your melodrama French and flowery, you could do worse than “Queen to Play.” Despite its slightly silly and slightly tired premise, Caroline Bottaro’s debut has solid work from Sandrine Bonnaire and Kevin Kline (yes, in French…pas mal) that sets up an enjoyable emotional payoff.

This film belongs to what I would call the “lady comes alive” genre: a frustrated (usually in a sexual way) middle-aged woman has a big aha moment (or maybe a few along the way) and finds herself at last with newborn self-confidence and a new lease on life. This time, the woman in question is unassuming cleaning lady Helene (Bonnaire), who grimly travels by bike between her two jobs on the island of Corsica: at a resort hotel and at the mansion of the mysterious, sickly, and rude Dr. Kroger (Kline).

Helene overworks herself and feels isolated at home. Her husband (Francis Renaud) mostly takes her for granted, his sex drive nonexistent, and her teenage daughter (Alexandra Gentil) is increasingly embarrassed by the family’s relative poverty. The daughter makes no bones about being determined to get out of there and be nothing like her parents.

One day at the hotel, something magical (and for some viewers, perhaps laughable) happens. Cleaning the room of a sexy heterosexual couple while they dreamily play chess on their balcony, Helene catches a glimpse of a better life: a life with chess at its center. The woman (Jennifer Beals, no less!) keeps giving Helene alluring glances, as in “Chess is really hot, you must try it!” An obsession with the game—and a desperate need to have those phallic chess pieces constantly within reach—overtakes Helene and nearly drives her mad.

Everything in Helene’s daily life starts looking like chess pieces and chessboards to her, from her toiletries to the tiles she mops. It is time for her to learn the game in earnest.

For her husband’s birthday, she buys him an electronic chessboard, secretly hoping he will be the one to play with her. When he claims that chess is too complicated for him, she winds up spending many sleepless nights at the kitchen table with the beeping chessboard and an instructional manual trying to master the moves by herself.

But what about that strange Dr. Kroger alone in his mansion with all his books and his paintings and, oh yes, his chess set? Maybe Helene should convince him to teach her, non?

Of course she should. As cranky old Kroger gives in to her entreaties and starts to see Helene’s innate talent for the game, he warms to her considerably—and voila, we have a budding romance on our hands. “Checkmate,” she tells him for the first time, a turning point. He does not readily admit it, but we know he could not be more pleased.

Meanwhile, back in town…inquiring minds have figured out that something is up at the Kroger place. Helene is glowing way too much and trying out new hairdos and not talking to her friends like she used to. Her husband has a meltdown due to everyone talking, but that is not going to stop a woman awakening from a lifetime of slumber. Chess has entered Helene’s bloodstream for good, and Kroger pushes her to try her hand at a local tournament.

“Queen to Play” has a sprinkling of class-consciousness that does not add up to much but nevertheless increases the melodrama fun. Helene’s daughter’s shame turns to pride as she watches her mother take on rich and powerful men who hate being beat at chess by a supposedly lowly cleaning lady.

By the time Helene gets to the final rounds, we are as eager as her family and friends, her husband included, to see what she can pull off. Under the table, she grips the borrowed queen from Kroger’s set for good luck.

Bonnaire does her best to hide Helene’s fierce intelligence and beauty for as long as she can. There is a nice moment where she at last expresses her sense of release at discovering her true self with a prolonged roar—equal parts leonine and somehow girlish—to the ocean.

Kline achieves the kind of low-key performance that is always a lot harder to accomplish than it looks. His lines rarely match the character’s honest feelings, so he has to tell us a lot with his eyes and small gestures. It has been a decade or so since this actor has had a great dramatic part in a Hollywood film; his performance in “Queen to Play”—the first time he has really looked the part of a senior—raises hopes for a bountiful third act to his 30-year film career.

Bonnaire and Kline have a well-written scene near the end of the film in which they play a game of chess by simply whispering their moves to each other. They can see it all in their heads: there are no pieces, no board; it is a game floating in the air between them, joining them. Bonnaire and Kline nail it.

“Queen to Play” is close to Pedro Almodovar territory, but he likely would have pumped up the frothiness into something outrageous. Helene would have probably been sucking on chess pieces instead of just fondling them. Bottaro takes a more subdued approach, but the knowing winks are there. For the most part, she succeeds in this balancing act. “Queen to Play” goes down like a champagne Sunday brunch—with cheap champagne that tastes all right.

Cast

Helene – Sandrine Bonnaire

Dr. Kroger – Kevin Kline

Ange – Francis Renaud

Lisa – Alexandra Gentil

The American Woman – Jennifer Beals

The American Man – Dominic Gould

Credits

A Zeitgeist Films release.

Directed by Caroline Bottaro.

Writers, Caroline Bottaro, Caroline Maly.

Producers, Dominique Besneard, Michel Feller.

Cinematography, Jean-Claude Larrieu, AFC.

Edited by Tina Baz Le Gal.

Music, Nicola Piovani.

Sound, Erwan Kerzanet, Selim Azzazi, Emmanuel Croset.

Running time: 96 minutes

By Jeff Farr