Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Jun 07, 2011 12:51 pm 
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Chambermaid checkmates rich recluse

Two quiet giants in their own separate cinematic realms star in this movie about class, finding yourself, and chess. They are Sandrine Bonnaire and Kevin Kline. This little very European film is light as air, and laced with stereotypes -- the plucky working class woman with the power to work wonders, the lonely suffering rich man who helps her. And yet it works because of Bonnaire and Kline. As the hotel chambermaid and housecleaner, Bonnaire, who isn't as famous as the usual French screen beauties but is more distinctive, exudes intelligence and focus -- two qualities supremely important for a chess player. Speaking in a charmingly measured way in French that reminded me of Werner von Ebrennac, the cultured but misguided Nazi officer in Melville's film of Vercor's Silence de la mer, Kline, who can play it over the top, is an admirably restrained actor here, remaining mysterious and vaguely unappealing, but at the same time winsome, sad, and slightly magical.

Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire) is working as a "femme de ménage" doing the rooms in a hotel on the island of Corsica when she happens to see a romantic American couple on a balcony playing chess. It seems sexy to her, and she buys her construction worker husband Ange (Francis Renaud) an electronic chess set as a birthday present, and then spends all her nights playing on it herself. Doctor Kröger (Kevin Kline), whose house she cleans, also has a chess set, and one day, when her passion for the game has progressed, she asks him to play with her and give her lessons. The brusque, rude Koöger scoffs, but she persists and he consents, but now she must clean the house for free. The games turn out to be exciting, and something he might be willing to pay for.

Everything goes haywire at home and the hotel because Hélène is totally distracted. She neglects Ange, forgets her teenage daughter Lisa (Alexandra Gentil), is rude to guests, forgets to change beds. But Queen to Play isn't a tale of conflict. Its trajectory leads rather quickly toward liberation. After an attempt to foreswear the game and return to the café in the evenings with her husband, she goes back to play with Krüger. And Ange accepts that she must live a little, while Lisa has been supportive all along. Hélène begins to beat her chess teacher every time and he tells her she has a gift and must enter a tournament.

La joueuse (the female player), as the film is called in French, has a motto, enunciated by Hélène, "Quand on prend des risques, on peut perdre. Quand on n'en prend pas, on perd toujours": "When we take risks, we can lose. When we don't, we always lose." She is also, of course, attracted by the fact that in chess, it's the Queen (called in French simply La Dame, The Lady) that is the most powerful piece.

Queen to Play is as light and airy as its Corsican landscapes. At first it seems to be superficial. But the director, Caroline Bottaro, who knew nothing about chess, handles the complicated game with tact and instinct. Some general advice from Kröger, but no explanations of how the electronic game works, or how Hélène gets so good so fast. There is no explanation. It's a rare talent. She has just discovered it later than most. It's a first that the only thing approaching a love scene between talented pupil and coach is a game they play out in their heads, simply giving out the numbers of the moves to each other.

The flaws of the little film are so obvious it seems churlish to point them out; but I will. This is the prototypical nice little glossy European film to please the liberal sensibilities of a bourgeois audience with unrealistic fantasies about working class people who happen to live on a picture postcard island. It's never hard to see where the story is going to go. It's silly to have Hélène see chess and chessboards everywhere once her passion for the game develops. The shy, aristocratic mentor, as I mentioned, is a cliché, and a somewhat cloying one (as is the Vercors' sensitive but deluded Nazi officer). Hélène's sudden career as a chess champion is a feel-good fantasy. The cooperation of Hélène's husband and daughter is a little to easy too. Some have found Kline's performance pretentious. Having never performed entirely in French before, he is at one remove from it, not in the kind of perfect control possessed by the English woman turned French femme fatale, Kristen Scott Thomas. But Bonnaire saves the film with the air of independence she gives her character, the same integrity she has brought to all her screen work. In a rather one-note role, she conveys a kind of presence and "there-ness" few actresses have. She is at all times her character -- and herself. In a first feature, Bottaro has made a film marked by a certain degree of elegance and restraint. But it belongs to Bonnaire -- and to a lesser extent, even if he's phoning in his performance in a way at times, to Kline.

Joueuse debuted in France August 5, 2009 and had been shown at Tribeca in April of that year. In France it was well received, though the hipper and more left-leaning critics had less use for it. On the other hand Le Monde was very favorable. It finally got a US theatrical release April 1, 2011, and has been rolling out and showing in various UIS locations since then. Screened at the Elmwood Theater in Berkeley June 6, 2011, after moving on from a run at a local Landmark theater.

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