Kevin Kline and Sandrine Bonnaire in "Queen to Play." (Patrick Glaize / Zeitgeist…)
You may go into "Queen to Play" looking forward to seeing Kevin Kline acting in French, but when you come out you will have Sandrine Bonnaire on your mind.
A two-time César winner and a major star in France ("Vagabond," "La Cérémonie," "Monsieur Hire"), Bonnaire is an actress of formidable skills who holds the screen without noticeable effort. She is someone we naturally care about; her yearnings become our own, even when, as here, she beautifully plays a character who initially doesn't think she has any yearnings at all.
As co-written (with Caroline Maly) and perceptively directed by Caroline Bottaro from a novel by Bertina Henrichs, this intelligent, heartfelt and deeply satisfying film introduces us to Hélène as she gets out of bed at 5 a.m. and methodically prepares for a typical workday.
Contentedly married to the handsome Ange (Francis Renaud) and the mother of 15-year-old Lisa (Alexandra Gentil), Hélène is the most dependable chambermaid at a tourist hotel on the scenic island of Corsica. She is clearly a methodical, practical woman who knows the exact parameters of her life. Or so she thinks.
Then, while cleaning a room, she catches a glimpse of a pair of American guests (Jennifer Beals and Dominic Gould) on the terrace playing a sensual, teasing game of chess. It's more than the game that attracts her, it's the lightness and playfulness of the relationship. That glimpse of another world changes Hélène's life.
Hélène becomes entranced, intoxicated, even obsessed by chess. She buys her husband an electronic chess set and uses it to teach herself the game. It gets so intense for Hélène that she sees the pattern of chessboards everywhere, from the tablecloth in a restaurant to the tiles on a floor.
Hélène also has a second job, cleaning house for the reclusive American Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline). He's a classic movie Mr. Grumpy, a widower who speaks fluent French but uses it mainly to make sarcastic remarks about the way of the world. He can't even remember Hélène's name, but when she asks him to tutor her in chess, something about this woman's effrontery makes him surprise even himself by agreeing.
Now that she has found someone who shares her passion, Hélène dives headlong into the learning experience. She loves her husband and her daughter, but their needs fade into insignificance. Though there is an undeniable element of flirtation in the lessons, as much as anything else, what Hélène is looking for is something of her own, and she finds it in a game where, she is delighted to learn, "the queen is the most powerful piece."
Reduced to its plot basics, "Queen to Play" ("Joueuse," or "player," is the French title) sounds schematic or conventional. What's on-screen is neither, and not just because the always involving plot plays things straight and doesn't rig the game for false and overly dramatic moments.
Though Kline handles his role expertly, "Queen to Play" succeeds as well as it does because of Bonnaire. An actress of exceptional presence with a magical smile and the ability to look both beautiful and ordinary, Bonnaire runs through a wide range of emotions and makes us believe them all. Her face is the film's go-to image, and we never tire of it.
One reason for Bonnaire's success, of course, is the astute, empathetic direction of Bottaro. It's the best kind of unforced filmmaking, able to make its points with delicacy and tact. And the best thing about it is that it is Bottaro's feature directing debut. We have a lot to look forward to.