Reviewer: James van Maanen
Rating (out of five): ****
A shoo-in to attract foreign film buffs who enjoy arthouse movies of the more mainstream variety, Queen to Play (Joueuse, in the original French) is a smart, small but intensely enjoyable movie -- one that I think would draw the kind of satisfied, word-of-mouth audience that made The Grocer's Son a surprise arthouse hit.
It stars a fine actress -- one who is consistently popular with this particular audience -- Sandrine Bonnaire (Angel of Mine, Intimate Strangers, Vagabond, Her Name is Sabine) and our own Kevin Kline (doing his first full-out French-language role), with help from Jennifer Beals (looking gorgeous in a small but pivotal role) and French hunk Francis Renaud (The Code, Chrysalis), who brings great warmth and humanity to Bonnaire's confused husband. Written and directed by Caroline Bottaro, a newcomer who has previously directed only one 15-minute short, the movie deftly juggles intelligence and emotion, plot and theme, bringing everything home to rest in thoroughly winning fashion without, thankfully, overplaying anything.
Bonnaire essays the role of Hélène, a cleaning lady capable of a good deal more than washing and wiping. (Another under-used cleaning woman named Seraphine walked away with that same year's Cesar for best film and best actress: Has France an untapped resource in its femmes de ménage?) One day, as Hélène cleans a room, the inhabitants of which are out on the terrace, she becomes fascinated while watching through windblown curtains as the pair plays chess. This fascination grows even more in the home of another of her clients (Professor Kröger, played by Kline) who also enjoys the game.
Chess has had a long, if checkered, history in cinema -- from a classic like The Seventh Seal to one of the worst movies ever to win a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar (Dangerous Moves) to the somewhat obvious and disappointing Searching for Bobby Fischer and that pivotal scene in the original (and quite pretentious: the remake was so much more fun) Thomas Crown Affair. In the annals of chess-on-film, Queen to Play may be among the best, due to Bottaro's ability to suggest an idea rather than bat us over the head with it. What draws Hélène to this game? It probably has to do with the way in which she, as a woman, can relate to her male partner while playing. This will come to effect her relationship with her husband, her client (Kline's professor) and finally some other important men. As I say, all of this is merely suggested, as is so much else in the movie. But mulling over Bottaro's many "suggestions" adds immensely to our pleasure.
Also at work here is an idea similar to what riveted audiences to that great movie Babe. Rather than watching a pig being told that he cannot do something for which he is clearly talented but lacks the canine qualifications, we see a woman begin to excel at a man's game -- and then pay for it. This, of course, sends out all sorts of feminist feelers (not to mention the issue of class: the couple's daughter brings this to the fore), but fortunately Bottaro allows nothing to go too far. Her discretion graces everything from sex to terminal illness. She possesses a remarkable ability to give us just enough information and/or visuals; this, coupled to the European sensibility not to pry, allows certain moments to skirt sentimentality but quickly settle back into sense and strength.
Bonnaire is just splendid: Her ability to hold so much inside (while making us aware of every scrap of it) is a joy to observe. She manages great acting with as few flourishes as anyone else performing today. Kline is gruff, bearded, and still as sexy and intelligent as ever. He ought to have had a better film career, but perhaps he will start working in French (or Italian? Spanish? Why not!). Beals continues to enchant -- more now than back in those Flashdance days -- and I will look forward with great anticipation to seeing Renaud again soon.
Until last evening, when I watched the film again, it had been two full years since I first saw it and wrote about it. I am happy to say that I feel as strongly now as I did then that this is an exceptional film. The only things I should have mention earlier are the simply gorgeous scenery on view (the film takes place at seacoast/cliffside town that should get a lot of American tourists, post-viewing), with cinematography is by Jean-Claude Larrieu, and the lovely, never-intrusive musical score by Nicola Piovani.
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