By Don Simpson | April 4, 2011
Director: Caroline Bottaro
Writers: Caroline Bottaro (screenplay), Bertina Henrichs (novel: La Joueuse d’échecs aka The Chessplayer)
Starring: Sandrine Bonnaire, Kevin Kline, Francis Renaud
Chess is often thought of — quite wrongly, I might add — as a man’s game, yet the most powerful and weakest pieces on the board are the queen and king, respectively. So with Queen to Play, writer-director Caroline Bottaro’s fixates on the power of the queen in order to create a female empowerment manifesto…of sorts.
Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a middle-aged chambermaid who works in a swank hotel on the island of Corsica. While cleaning an American couple’s (Jennifer Beals and Dominic Gould) guest room, she eyes the couple playing chess on the balcony. In their sophisticated hands the game is incredibly sensual – and bourgeois to boot – and Hélène visibly craves to be more like them.
Hélène’s husband, Ange (Francis Renaud), is a shipyard builder who is struggling in the current economic climate. (“The people who have money are not spending it.”) Hélène and Ange have a rather loveless marriage. Ange spends most of his non-working hours drinking and playing backgammon (a working man’s game) with friends, while Hélène is left to be bored alone at home…that is, until she discovers chess.
A curmudgeonly hermetic American widower Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline) – whose home Hélène cleans – reluctantly accepts Hélène as his chess mate. Dr. Kröger helps Hélène rediscover the meaning of passion; what it means to care so intensely about one thing that it keeps you up all night. Despite the rumors around town, Hélène’s is a passion for chess; though we can also sense a growing sexual tension between Hélène and Dr. Kröger. (In an odd sort of way, Dr. Kröger helps Hélène develop back into a sensual being.)
Chess is a game-changer for Hélène’s life. Suddenly she has a purpose and a skill; and, intellectually at least, she is catapulted from the dregs of her working class status to the charming world of the bourgeoisie. It is when she discovers that her previously reluctant family – including her “chav” daughter, Lisa (Alexandra Gentil) – is willing to make changes to adapt to Hélène’s passion for chess that Hélène falls back in love with Ange. Suddenly Hélène is in control of not only her own life, but she begins to play a more dominant role in her family’s development.
Adapted from Bertina Henrichs’ novel La Joueuse d’échecs (The Chessplayer), Queen to Play takes the chess-as-a-metaphor-for-life as far as it can possibly go. Hélène flowers into a confident presence, towering over the much weaker males (Ange, Dr. Kröger) who once enjoyed a certain amount of power over her. Despite some assistance from Dr. Kröger, Hélène turns out to have a natural talent for chess; therefore, she is able to achieve her own emancipation without relying on the chivalrous aid of males.
Bottaro’s tale is commendably class-conscious and she is able to clearly showcase the economic barriers related to female self-empowerment. For Hélène, intellectual development (by way of chess) is the key to class advancement, personal freedom and happiness.
Queen to Play is a good example of a film with a strong feminist perspective that seems unable to convey its socio-political commentary in the form of a cinematic narrative. The story sounds pretty wonderful on paper… I like chess, empowering female characters, class-conscious films, French cinema, and Kline (who does an admirable job with French dialogue, I might add); but I find Queen to Play to be a tediously paced film that is void of any true emotions. I feel completely detached from Hélène; I have no empathy for her, and I certainly have no desire to cheer her on. Despite Hélène’s metamorphosis on paper, Bonnaire continues to portray her with a stoic coldness that is impossible to latch on to. Bonnaire is obviously trying to make Hélène as ordinary as possible, but she seems to go too far. Additionally, the character of Dr. Kröger does not play to any of Kline’s strong suits (while another recent film, The Extra Man, showcased Kline’s talents quite well); he is far too brooding and boring for Kline’s talents, which lie more in the realm of the off-beat and silly (usually with a dark edge).