In Queen to Play,Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire), a melancholy but proud maid, catches a glimpse through gauzy curtains of a sultry brunette playing chess on a balcony. Soon, she's so obsessed with the game that she's pretending little pieces of dough are bishops and knights, and she's hiding electronic chess sets in the freezer.
Hélène's new fascination with the game is telegraphed heavily, as she caresses a chess board she finds on a client's bookshelf, and as (in the very next scene) writer-director Caroline Bottaro needlessly and aggressively foregrounds a chessboard. Hélène's early difficulty with chess and her job as a maid are reminiscent of the difficulty with words and job as a maid that Bonnaire's character had in Claude Chabrol's La Cérémonie, a comparison that does not benefit Queen to Play. We learn in one of the film's many expository scenes of functional dialogue that Hélène moved to an island off the coast of France some years ago to marry her husband, Ange. She has since raised a teenage daughter with whom she seems close, but her job and marriage are unfulfilling. Ange won't make love with her, he slaps their daughter and—perhaps worst of all—he disapproves of Hélène's smoking.
Queen to Play—a clumsy renaming of the original French title Joueuse, which simply means "the player"—is about Hélène finding herself through chess. She gives Ange an electronic chess set for his birthday, but quickly co-opts it to teach herself the game. When she outgrows this e-tutor, she gets a little help from one of her clients, Dr. Kröger, played by a professorial Kevin Kline, complete with shaggy hair, glasses, beard, cardigan and a vague terminal illness. Friendship with Hélène thaws the misanthropic Kröger, and their sessions grow longer and warmer as Hélène's game gets better and better.
The first few times Bonnaire and Kline are on screen together are jolting, but not because of any chemistry; it's just strange to see them sharing screen space, so different are their styles and résumés. Kline is relaxed, almost glib; he's the kid who gets tagged and then says he wasn't playing. But while his eyebrows go up, Bonnaire's go down; she's an actress of effortless intensity who can put a lifetime of struggle into her face without underlining it. Unfortunately, the script highlights it for her, having Kröger tell her to "smile occasionally. It suits you better than looking serious." Director Bottaro doesn't seem to realize that Bonnaire's smile needs no help from her script.
Queen to Play moves quickly, never really settling into itself but also never growing portentous, which is a relief. There is plenty of Bonnaire cruising on her bike down the seaside roads to a corny, delicate score. It's very pleasant to look at but serves to short-circuit the minimal themes of the movie. As Hélène ventures onto new ground, the story is very careful not to let her new passion run away with her. Chess does not estrange her from Ange or the gossipy vacation town where they live, and her grasp of the game offers her more of a feeling of freedom than it liberates her from any of the financial or gender-based traps the film name-checks. The stakes are kept low, and the picturesque cinematography of the charming village undercuts any of the tension in Hélène's class-based or emotional difficulties. Queen to Play is a film of small victories, and the film overall feels very small indeed. So much so, in fact, you may not be sure afterward if you've watched a movie at all.