A Pawn With Hopes Of Castles, In Search Of A Gambit

Her Move: Sandrine Bonnaire plays a smart but shy woman who develops a passion for chess — and an appetite for a life beyond her experience.

Her Move: Sandrine Bonnaire plays a smart but shy woman who develops a passion for chess — and an appetite for a life beyond her experience. Patrick Glaize /Zeitgeist Films hide caption

itoggle caption Patrick Glaize /Zeitgeist Films

Queen To Play

  • Director: Caroline Bottaro
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 97 minutes

Not rated

With: Sandrine Bonnaire, Kevin Kline, Francis Renaud, Jennifer Beals

In French and English

Relaxed and goofy in Dave, A Fish Called Wanda and a host of other comedies, Kevin Kline has an endearing way of subverting his own grandee impulses when he's being funny. Give the actor a dramatic role, though, and he comes on all Shakespeare in the Park.

In the not-too-terrible French film Queen to Play, Kline oozes low-key bombast as Dr. Kroeger, a grumpy geezer who plays Henry Higgins to Sandrine Bonnaire's Helene, a rural hotel chambermaid feeling the dead weight of her humdrum life with her handsome lug of a husband and hormonal teenage daughter. (Never mind that the island they all call home looks like paradise on Earth — if Meryl Streep appeared around the corner doing the Mamma Mia! splits, she'd be expelled for lowering the tone of the neighborhood.)

Had Kline been cast as the aging, closeted gay Svengali of the Bertina Henrichs novel on which the movie is based, there'd be more fun and energy all 'round. But he's been tidied and straightened here; Kline's Kroeger just mopes around his Corsica home quoting Blake (in English), while dropping hints (in French) about his sad past and sadder future.

And teaching Helene, who moonlights as his cleaning lady, to play chess — which gives you some idea of how hard first-time writer-director Caroline Bottaro has to work to bring romance, let alone sex, into the equation.

Give her credit for perseverance, beginning with a scene in which a temporarily mousy Helene (a stretch for the ethereal Bonnaire) casts longing looks at the palpable heat building between a chess-playing hotel guest and his beautiful lover (Jennifer Beals), who's wearing nothing but a champagne slip as she checkmates the hell out of him.

The maid picks up that slip — abandoned, by accident or design, by its owner — as well a passion for the game. Before you can say My Fair Lady, Helene starts primping, tongues start wagging and hubby gets mad enough that he's suddenly one stop short of raping his wife on the kitchen table. That's about as much bodice-ripping as this upscale Harlequin romance will permit, though; from there on, the plot heads for self-improvement, with frequent pauses for bouts of regression and self-doubt.

Kroeger-Town: Kevin Kline is the curmudgeonly employer who encourages Helene's interest in the game of kings. i i

Kroeger-Town: Kevin Kline is the curmudgeonly employer who encourages Helene's interest in the game of kings. Patrick Glaize/Zeitgeist Films hide caption

itoggle caption Patrick Glaize/Zeitgeist Films
Kroeger-Town: Kevin Kline is the curmudgeonly employer who encourages Helene's interest in the game of kings.

Kroeger-Town: Kevin Kline is the curmudgeonly employer who encourages Helene's interest in the game of kings.

Patrick Glaize/Zeitgeist Films

Queen to Play is not without its quiet pleasures. Bottaro lights the movie in invitingly warm colors; Corsica is ravishing; and though Bonnaire has done far more bracing work for just about every French filmmaker of note — she was magnificent opposite Isabelle Huppert in Claude Chabrol's La Ceremonie — she makes a moving Eliza Doolittle here, registering tiny shifts of mood and mode as an intelligent but diffident working-class woman who loves her family even as she aches to spread her wings. If only the emotions ever ran higher than room temperature.

Kroeger, on the other hand, is unbearable. Personally, I'd be tempted to drive a carving knife between the shoulder blades of a man who recited meaningful lines from The Tiger every time I had a little crisis of confidence. Or told me I should smile more. Or smirked when I made progress, and said, "I have managed to teach you something." No wonder Helene wants to beat him at his own game.

Well, she does and she doesn't. From Pygmalion to Educating Rita to Million Dollar Baby, the May-December mentoring movie carries an enduring charge for women, and I doubt its power imbalance displeases the men they drag with them to the theaters.

On the chessboard, as the script constantly tells us, it's the queen who's the most powerful player. Yet when at last the movie comes to rest at a (male-dominated) tournament, the lone female contestant plays her damnedest under the remote control of you-know-who, the prize being a post-contest linguistic duel that winks broadly at eros.

Bottaro understands her audience(s) all too well: Queen to Play caters to post-feminist women who want their independence but still cling to their husbands, their lovers and their hectoring, bullying, endlessly protective daddies, too. Nice fantasy — but when Helene feels dissed by her employer and stomps off crying, "I hate you!" she sounds less like a woman liberated than like a preteen who has just been told to get off Facebook or else.

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