Compulsion is the endgame
By Jen Chaney
Friday, May 13, 2011
In “Queen to Play,” a subtle, absorbing film that features Kevin Kline in his first French-speaking role, the only thing that happens, really, is that a hard-working, soft-spoken woman learns to play chess. Seriously. That’s it.
Because this “Queen” arrives in Washington at the start of the summer movie season, nearly two years after its initial release in France, that narrative simplicity has a certain appeal. At a time when most pictures are all CGI’d up and Imaxed out, there’s something particularly enjoyable about settling into a film whose pleasures reside in quiet moments, understated performances and the reading of subtitles.
“Queen to Play,” originally titled “Joueuse” in French, or “Player,” introduces us to Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire), a housecleaner who radiates the kind of effortless luminosity that only maids in French movies possess. Helene lives with her husband and teenage daughter on the island of Corsica, a gorgeous retreat in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea that is so idyllic, its landscapes are almost certainly featured in your cubicle mate’s screensaver.
Helene’s surroundings may be dreamy, but her day-to-day is decidedly not; any ambitions she once had appear to have been tucked away beneath the sheets of the beds she makes with ultra-crisp efficiency.
That changes one day when — while tidying a room at the seaside inn where she works — Helene witnesses a game of chess between a hotel guest and his girlfriend (Jennifer Beals, in a largely dialogue-less cameo). As the woman luxuriates in a silk slip, fingers the tendrils of her brunette mane and contemplates her next move, chess looks like the most stimulating, sexiest of pursuits. Suddenly, that which is stimulating and sexy is of enormous interest to Helene.
In short order, our heroine is teaching herself the rules of the game and becoming so chess-obsessed that everywhere she looks — at the crumbs on a checkered table cloth, or the black and white tiles of a floor that begs to be mopped — she sees the opportunity to advance another rook or bishop. When it becomes clear that her solo tutorial sessions with an electronic chess board aren’t elevating her skills quickly enough, she seeks the assistance of Dr. Kroger (Kline), the ailing, reclusive widower whose home she regularly cleans. That relationship — which slowly morphs from board game mentorship to genuine friendship, inevitably sparking town gossip about a budding romance — ultimately becomes the engaging core of “Queen to Play.”
Kline convincingly travels from gruff to gentle in his role as a widowed intellectual who finds in Helene the opportunity to compensate for the support he failed to offer his artistically gifted wife. Any trace of the hyper-comic actor Americans know best from films like “A Fish Called Wanda” and “In and Out” disappears entirely behind Kroger’s scruffy beard, convincing expatriate’s French accent and subdued demeanor.
As solid as Kline’s performance is, though, this is really Bonnaire’s movie. As a woman whose hold on her emotions is as tight as her carefully twisted chignons, the veteran French actress manages to convey a range of feeling — yearning, frustration, triumph — with little more than the furrow of a brow and the quick flicker of a dimple. Helene does not fully understand the reasons for her sudden checkmate compulsion, but she’s still able to persuade us to root for her. Even more astonishingly, she succeeds in making chess both accessible and exciting, even for those whose knowledge of the game is based largely on our memories of “Through the Looking Glass.”
“The most powerful piece is the queen,” Helene’s daughter Lisa (Alexandra Gentil) reminds her during a moment of mother-child bonding. The teenager is referring to chess, of course. But by the end of this film, it’s clear who the queen really is and that she indeed owns an inner strength that might even make a summer blockbuster superhero a little envious.
Contains some strong sexuality and occasional language.