Thursday, March 31, 2011

Review | "Queen to Play"

There have been a lot of films in the past dealing with female sexual liberation, to the point where it has almost become a cliche - a woman, stuck in a dead-end marriage, meets a handsome stranger who loosens her up and teaches her how to love, showing her what she's been missing all these years and igniting her flame once again.

Caroline Bottaro's Queen to Play is not that film.

Instead, it's a new twist on an old formula. The woman in question here is Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire), a hotel maid who makes extra money cleaning private homes on the side. Her marriage isn't so much "dead-end" as it is stagnant, much like the rest of her life, trapped in a monotonous job that dampens her spirit.

Then one day while cleaning a room at the hotel, she sees a couple playing a game of chess together, and she is instantly fascinated. She has never played the game before, but something about it draws her in, and she finds herself returning to it in her mind as she cleans.

Kevin Kline and Sandrine Bonnaire in QUEEN TO PLAY, a film by Caroline Bottaro.
A Zeitgeist Films release. Photo by Patrick Glaize.

She finds herself daydreaming about chess at the home of one of her regular clients, Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline), a gruff expatriate American who values order as much as his alone time. One day, he catches her admiring his chess set rather than cleaning, which causes her to make a strange request - to be paid not in cash, but in chess lessons. Kröger grudgingly agrees, and the two set a weekly chess date, and quickly realize that Hélène has a natural talent, opening her mind to expansion and new possibilities. But her weekly visits to Kröger's cause whispers in their small town, rumors of an illicit affair, putting a strain on her marriage and her social life. Hélène soon finds herself a pariah in her own community, with a marriage and family life in serious jeopardy, and must make a painful decision - to save face in the midst of malicious gossip, or to pursue her life's one true passion.

Queen to Play is a romance without a romance, a kind of romance of the mind. It's not about sexual liberation, it's about mental liberation. Through chess, Hélène is set free from her banal existence. She and Kröger form a bond that transcends the usual shallow Hollywood ideas of love, it's something much more and unique. Hélène isn't interested in leaving her husband, all she wants is some spice in her life, to expand her mind in ways she never thought possible, and she finds that avenue in chess.

Sandrine Bonnaire in QUEEN TO PLAY, a film by Caroline Bottaro.
A Zeitgeist Films release. Photo by Patrick Glaize.

There's something refreshingly charming about Bottaro's avoidance of the torrid. In her capable hands, Queen to Play is a sophisticated and warm hearted new kind of romance. It's about mental bonds rather than physical bonds, an unexpected quality in today's world. It's clear Bottaro favors intelligence over physicality, and that intellectual quality carries over into the film. This is smart, beautifully constructed filmmaking where chess is almost a sport, a thrilling mind game that Bottaro imbues with a surprising amount of suspense, as Hélène enters a chess tournament that becomes a climactic showdown.

Kline (in his first all French speaking role) and Bonnaire are in fine form here. Their chemistry drives the film, but what they manage to say without talking speaks the loudest. Queen to Play is a lovely and beguiling platonic romance, a smart and thoroughly engaging drama that makes chess look thrilling, and intellectual pursuits look sexy. That's no easy feat, but Bottaro handles it with great wit and charm. This one's a winner.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

QUEEN TO PLAY | Directed by Caroline Bottaro | Stars Kevin Kline, Sandrine Bonnaire, Francis Renaud, Valérie Lagrange, Alexandra Gentil | Not rated | In French w/English subtitles | Opens Friday, April 1, in NYC and LA.

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