There’s something to be said about a good sports movie. They often have the most tired formulas, and easily devolve into sap and lazy storytelling, but when done right their predictable structures feel less-paint-by numbers and more like the comfort of a familiar friend. But there are two characteristics of writer/director Caroline Bottaro’s debut feature Queen to Play that don’t automatically denote a generic sports movie: it’s French, and it’s about chess.
However, Bottaro uses the formula to such an advantage that it feels like sleight of hand as she delivers a film that’s simple but engrossing, one that’s familiar but slyly touching.
Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a working class mother. She cleans apartments and hotel rooms for a living. Her husband Ange (Francis Renaud) is a day laborer who sees his friends getting laid off left and right and is a afraid that he’ll be the next. Expenses are always on their mind, and they squeak by one month to the next. Their daughter is having trouble navigating adolescence with her “common” parents, self-righteously resenting the economic place from which she came. They are, in short, a family all too aware of their “place” on the social ladder, Helene especially since she has the job of cleaning up after the wealthy.
One morning she curiously watches an American couple (one of the two Americans, surprisingly, is Jennifer Beals, but she isn’t the only familiar stateside face in the film) playing chess on a porch as she cleans their room.
As Helene cleans the artifact-stuffed apartment of ornery American professor Kroger (a masterfully restrained Kevin Kline, who speaks volumes in his facial expressions alone), she finds his chess set and her interest grows. Helene buys a small electronic chess set as a birthday present for her husband, who is baffled as to why she would get him such a gift, and quickly becomes frustrated in his attempts to play the game. Helene, meanwhile, grows instantly obsessed, getting out of bed and playing each night. It becomes her vice, causing problems for her at work and home.
She eventually gets the courage to ask Kroger if he’ll play a game with her, and he reluctantly agrees. Impressed with her skill, he opens up and Helene and Kroger play weekly, the game being the clear highlight of her week. Her devotion to the game causes conflict with her home life, as Ange grows suspicious that she’s having an affair with Kroger and worried that she will publicly embarrass herself and her family playing a game that is so clearly “beyond” her class status. But something has awoken in Helene, as if she’s finally found passion where there was only work.
The surly Kroger eventually opens up to her about being a widower as they connect through the game, and he recommends Helene for an amateur tournament. You can see where this is going, but the predictability of it all is hardly the point. The film is executed with such finesse that it never feels like the structured sports film it really is. It feels fresh and engaging, even though it’s a quiet movie about a quiet game. The game of chess is turned into something quite involving and suspenseful through Bottaro’s nuanced cinematic touch, even for the viewer who has little familiarity with chess. Each anticipated moment is well earned, and the two leads have such a subtle chemistry together that we look forward to their next game as much as Helene does. When Kroger finally opens up about his home life, its not a dramatic breakdown or a therapy session. It comes across as the real evolution of a friendship – not a human connection that he’s been avoiding, but one he never anticipated. And while the film very well could have explored cheap drama through an affair or by indulging in Ange’s fear of an affair, the quiet game between Helene and Kroger has a sensuality to it that’s far more interesting than any conventional portrayal of coupling would have been.
Queen to Play isn’t a perfect film. It’s quiet beauty is why everything works so well, but there are moments where Bottaro reveals some bad first feature instincts that violate the rest of the film’s tone, like some ham-fisted moments involving Ange’s class anxiety and a completely out-of-place fantasy moment where Helene envisions a life without chess. That said, Queen to Play is a humble achievement. It’s rules and conventions are as apparent from the beginning as those of the game depicted, but like a great game of chess, surprises occur with the most graceful of moves.
The Good Side: A movie that’s familiar in all the best ways with some engrossing yet subtle chemistry between its two leads.
The Bad Side: A few out-of-place moments in which the film abandons its quiet style.
On the Side: Based on a novel by Bernita Henrichs, Queen to Play is Kevin Kline’s first French-only film role.