A restrained comedy that proposes the game of chess as sexual ritual.
Reviewed for MovieWeb by Harvey Karten
Directed By: Caroline Bottaro
Written By: Caroline Bottaro, from Bertina Henrichs' novel "The Chess Player"
Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, Kevin Kline, Francis Renaud, Jennifer Beals, Valérie Lagrange, Alexandra Gentil
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 3/22/11
Opens: April 1, 2011
Chess has been around for a while, so we can safely assume it's a great game. But is chess better than sex? Bobby Fischer might have thought so and so do some folks in "Queen to Play," Caroline Bottaro's freshman feature-length entry, one that finds Kevin Kline as we have never before seen him. Based on Bertina Henrichs' novel, "The Chess Player" and adapted for the screen by the director, "Joueuse" (French for "player") takes place on the beautiful island of Corsica, a location that its principal character had never thought of leaving (and for which a lot of people would have been better off if Napoleon thought the same way).
This feel-good, oddball comedy which involves largely good talk and only the modest physical action involved in playing chess and cleaning rooms, finds Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire), a middle-aged maid in a small but elegant hotel, reinventing a life that she thought would never change-making beds, fixing food for her dock-working husband, Ange (Francis Renaud), and a target of insults from her teen daughter who insists that she will "never be like" her prole parents. While cleaning a room in the hotel, she sneaks some looks at an American woman (Jennifer Beals) and her lover, (Dominic Gould). The Americans lean their heads into each other, holding hands, and treating the checkerboard as though it were a variety of sex illustrated in the Kama Sutra. Turned on by their excitement, she uses her free time to study the game of chess, gets tutored by Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline), a reclusive American expatriate, fending off the envious criticism of her husband-who has followed her to the doctor's house and spies on the two so engrossed in the game that her husband considers the activity a form of infidelity.
Though director Bottaro has stated that she does not consider this a feminist movie, we see considerable evidence that the message of women power is clear. The Queen on the chessboard is the most powerful figure, a fact that Hélene notes with pride. The two women, mother and daughter, appear determined to change their status as Corsican drudges. Hélène is so wrapped up in the game that she evens dreams chess, finding herself on a giant, checkerboard floor thinking of her moves, watching the squares turn black one by one.
"Queen to Play" is restrained despite the erotic excitement that chess has provided for Hélène, a thrill that urges her to try to seduce her hard-working husband. For his part, Ange is fond of his wife, holding back from any punishment save verbal criticism of her coming home late, even deciding that the electronic board, a gift from Hélene, is not something to be dismissed. Though not the sorts of shots to lead to an "R" rating, the sexiest scene finds Hélene engaging in a game of chess with Kröger without a board, sitting close to each other, each stating a move not so much as foreplay as for a virtual sexual consummation. The principal characters all win. Hélène revives her marriage, the reclusive doctor enjoys a few months of the human companionship he has tried to avoid, and Ange gains new pride in his wife's accomplishments.
Unrated. 101 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online