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Queen To Play (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 29


Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Kevin Kline, Francis Renaud, Jennifer Beals, Dominic Gould, Valérie Lagrange, Alexandra Dorothee Guiraud, Alexandra Gentil, Alice Pol, Didier Ferrari, Laurence Colussi, Élisabeth Vitali, Daniel Martin, Valérie Tréjean, François Orsoni and Christine Ambrosini.

Screenplay by Caroline Bottaro.

Directed by Caroline Bottaro.

Distributed by Zeitgeist Films. 101 minutes. Not Rated.

Leave it to the French to take a cerebral and kind of stodgy pursuit like chess and try to make it rather sexy. Even more to the point, only the French would actually come pretty close to succeeding.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the film stars the striking actress Sandrine Bonnaire (Monsieur Hire, Intimate Strangers) as our guide into the sensuous world of knights and Queens on the French Riviera.

This story is about Hélène, a middle-aged chambermaid who finds a sense of self through her coincidental discovery of the game – which becomes symbolic to her of a luxurious, sensuous life that her more pedestrian home life had long ago lost.

Bonnaire plays the role with a somber aging beauty and a sense of desperate thwarted longing. Hélène is long married to handsome man, but the fire has been out for quite a while. Her children are nearly grown. She makes a living cleaning up after tourists in a fabulous local hotel. Still the bills are far from being paid and her husband is having trouble holding a job, so she supplements her income by cleaning homes.

A vague sense of malaise has settled over Hélène. She no longer even dares to dream that her life could be as romantic and exciting as she once hoped.

This all changes one day when she is cleaning a room at the hotel and sees a glamorous American couple (Domenic Gould & Jennifer Beals) wiling away the afternoon on their patio, playing a strangely erotically charged game of chess.

Hélène becomes determined to learn the game – one she has always dismissed as trivial – as a way to capture some of the luxurious romance of the couple.

Her husband and friends do not support her new interest in the game, so Hélène asks one of her cleaning clients – a mysterious American ex-patriot named Dr. Kroeger (Kevin Kline) – to give her lessons. She turns out to be something of a natural at the game and enjoys the intellectual give and take of the lessons. However, to pretty much the entire village, her visits to learn the game are mistaken for adultery.

Queen to Play is essentially a slightly intellectual take on the old sports movie formula – a game allows an unsatisfied person to discover a whole wider world. However, there are just enough European quirks added to the recipe that it is wonderfully fulfilling.

Also due to a wonderful performance by Bonnaire, the film is a fascinating look at ageing. Hélène is so cut off that her face appears completely blank around people – only to explode into emotion when she is alone. Bonnaire does a wonderful job of communicating the disappointment and numbing boredom of Hélène’s life.

As for the American imported actors – Kline and Beals – both acquit themselves extremely well, particularly considering they are performing under the handicap of speaking completely in a second language. In fairness, Kline’s character does have a single line – a quotation – in English. Beals, whose role is much smaller, says only one word in English. Not surprisingly, that word is “chess.”

There is nothing earth-shaking about Queen to Play, but the film is quietly captivating.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2011 All rights reserved. Posted: April 1, 2011.


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