This charming French film from first-time director Caroline Bottaro was originally released in France as Joueuse back in 2009, and is only now making it to the U.S. as Queen to Play. Not that most of us knew we were waiting for anything much, but it turns out to have been worth the delay. If the prospect of a movie built around a chambermaid/cleaning woman learning to play chess seems an unlikely premise, it won’t take long for this beguiling film to prove any reservations you may have wrong. You see, it is a film about playing chess, but it’s about a good deal more than that. In a sense, it almost qualifies as the chess equivalent of the “uplifting sports movie,” but it carefully avoids all the cliches of that generally mawkish sub-genre—up to and including a standard, Hollywood ending. (I suppose a chess tournament that climaxed with swelling music and a crane shot would seem silly—though I wouldn’t put it past Hollywood filmmakers—but there’s nothing like it here.)
What we have is the disarmingly simple story of Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire, Intimate Strangers) a working-class woman employed by a posh hotel on the island of Corsica. She has a husband, Ange (Francis Renaud), and a teenage daughter, Lisa (Alexandra Gentil). She has accepted her lot in life and convinced herself that she’s happy—or at least content. This at any rate is how she paints herself when talking to younger chambermaid Natalia (Alice Pol), who is always hoping to better herself and get off Corsica. But the truth is different—something that comes to light when Hélène watches an American couple (Jennifer Beals and Dominic Gould) play a flirtatious game of chess on the balcony of a room she’s cleaning. Hélène knows nothing about the game, but she finds herself drawn to it—or maybe to the air of sophistication of the players.
To augment the family income, Hélène also cleans house for an American widower, Kröger (Kevin Kline), an obviously upper-class, slightly sarcastic and distant man. Spying a fancy chess set in his library, she works up the courage to ask him to teach her to play. He isn’t interested, but her persistence intrigues him, though, according to him, he gives in because she’s appealed to his “better nature” by offering to clean for free in exchange for lessons. Not surprisingly, a kind of relationship slowly develops between the two—almost a romance, or a kind of romance.
Equally unsurprising is the fact that her new interest—which quickly becomes an obsession—starts affecting both her job and her home life. Despite efforts to interest Ange in the game (he merely becomes frustrated by the rules), there’s no common ground there. Plus, rumors have started to fly about her and Kröger. Daughter Lisa is also embarrassed by Hélène’s interest and has started to feel neglected in the bargain. It finally becomes too much and Hélène quits playing chess altogether—or tries to. How it all plays out I leave to the film, though I will say that it’s refreshingly free of the cliches you might be expecting.
Nearly everything about Queen to Play works, but what really sells the film—apart from the freshness of the subject matter—lies in the performances. All of them are good (yes, even Jennifer Beals, who is scarcely in the film and almost comes across as a mystical presence by the end). Bonnaire and Kline are much more than good, however. They’re extraordinary. The subtle changes in the multiple levels their relationship goes through are better acting than anything I’ve seen this year. And, yes, Kline credibly spends the whole film speaking French—apart from a brief bit where he recites William Blake’s “The Tyger” in English. Together, he and Bonnaire create something suspiciously like magic. Not Rated. Contains adult themes and situations.