Queen to Play

Movie Information

The Story: A working-glass chambermaid becomes obsessed with -- and proficient in -- the game of chess under the guidance of an older American widower. The Lowdown: A very different kind of romantic drama/comedy that manages to fuse together nontraditional romance with themes of personal growth and female empowerment (that avoids all the pitfalls of such stories). Highly recommended.
Genre: Drama Comedy
Director: Caroline Bottaro
Starring: Sandrine Bonnaire, Kevin Kline, Francis Renaud, Alexandra Gentil, Valérie Lagrange, Alice Pol, Jennifer Beals
Rated: NR

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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6 thoughts on “Queen to Play

  1. Ken Hanke

    I doubt if many of the people in last night’s audience (of whom I take it you were one) would agree with you. That doesn’t, of course, make you wrong, though I personally think you’re way off-base.

  2. Edwin

    All the comments I heard on the way out were positive. It just didn’t work for me, though I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the other 3 AFS special screenings this year. Keep ’em coming.

  3. Ken Hanke

    We bring them when we can. I know there’s another in the works currently for the first week in August.

    By the way, I looked over your blog — we’ll probably run a Chaplin and a Preston Sturges film at the Tue. night screenings this fall.

  4. Edwin

    Looking forward to all of the above. Thanks for looking at the blog. I need to correct those blind spots.

  5. Lisa

    Loved this film! Loved that the turning point arrives when Hélène is about to give up playing chess. It’s a man’s game, after all.

    Her daughter, Lisa, scoffs at that idea. Lisa asks Hélène to show her the dance she’s learned from Ouidad, a Moroccan friend. The CD goes on, the music plays, and the two of them are bellydancing in the kitchen.

    The screen shows sinuous arms and fluid fingers, hints at undulating hips. Within a few moments, Hélène is illuminating confidence.

    Chess may be a game of the mind. But it requires feeling, instinct, courage, determination. Those are the qualities Hélène claims as she is moving through her body’s center. Her body’s center — literally her turning point.

    From that point on, she’s on the path to attaining her heart’s desire.

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