The overriding metaphor in Queen to Play is chess—in fact it overpowers. While it matches Pygmalion and Educating Rita in topic and pedigree, Queen to Play merely hints at plot points and character development, which leaves it to coasts on the reputations of its stars. So it's strange we see only glimpses of the charm and vivacity that actors Sandrine Bonnaire (Vagabond) and Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda) normally radiate. What could have been an intense tour de force becomes a dry rehashing of the story of a woman's determination to rise above her station. Nevertheless, the leads alone will create box office interest, especially since Kline is starring in his first French speaking role.
Hélène (Bonnaire) has never asked for much of life. She lives in an idyllic resort town in the French countryside with her husband and daughter and works as a maid in the hotel. Life is simple but dull. She's a model worker, reliable and willing, and as such is taken for granted by everyone. One day, after spotting a couple laughing together and playing chess, she becomes obsessed with learning the game. Frustrated by her own attempts, she enlists the help of the gruff and cloistered Dr. Kröger (Kline).
The plot is simple and the film doesn't do enough to support it. The issue isn't subtlety, particularly as writer/director Caroline Bottaro practically beats us over the head with the central metaphor. Without heavy plot details to get tangled in, Bottaro has a chance for vibrant cinematic exposition. Instead, motivations are absent, interactions dry and the necessary heart and soul have gone missing. It's not for lack of trying. The lush landscape is lovingly shot in rich sensuous tones. The entire film is visually evocative, but only on the surface. Sandrine Bonnaire bravely bares all, trading make-up (of which she wears none) for a unique, inner dignity. Kline does his best to imply a glimmer of warmth within his Kröger, a one-sided soul who has all but given up.
In an effort to avoid the clichés of this now traditional story, director Bottaro deserves credit for not going down so many of the ragged roads of her predecessors. She does her best to avoid the narrative traps, and is quite agile in suggesting these predictable elements without giving in to them. But she still relies too much on her heroine's obsession with chess; this is clearly not the manner in which to build something of substance.
By visually overemphasizing the chess metaphor the director dampens the spirit of this film. Why not also develop the story, the character, something, derivative of that metaphor? Hélène's obsession is so literally played out as to leave no room for the audience to read anything in. There's even a wince factor at play here, as in the moment when Hélène transforms scraps from dinner into chess pieces that she plays with while her husband is talking. You'll ask yourself, "did she really?" and yes, unfortunately, she did.
Distributor: Zeitgeist Films
Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire and Kevin Klein
Director: Caroline Bottaro
Screenwriters: Caroline Bottaro and Bertina Henrichs
Producers: Dominique Besnehard and Michel Feller
Running Time: 97 min.
Release Date: April 1 ltd.