Queen to Play -- Film Review

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NEW YORK -- Chess as metaphor for life is the theme of Caroline Bottaro's French drama starring Sandrine Bonnaire as a maid who rediscovers herself thanks to her newfound love for the game and Kevin Kline as the misanthropic recluse who teaches her. While "Queen to Play" boasts an admirable dramatic subtlety and several strong performances, its overly familiar ideas and lugubrious pacing, as well as the fact that chess is not exactly the most cinematic of subjects, will make it a tough sit even for dedicated art house audiences. It recently received its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.

Bonnaire plays Helene, a chambermaid at an upper-class Corsican hotel who's dealing with financial problems, a rebellious daughter and a less than ideal marriage to a handsome but not particularly sensitive blue-collar worker (Francis Renaud).

When she sees a glamorous, barely clothed couple (including Jennifer Beals in a cameo) intensely playing chess on their balcony, it stirs something within her. She promptly buys a set, but her husband proves to be an unwilling player. Spotting a board in the home of Dr. Kroger (Kline), for whom she moonlights as a cleaning person, she implores him to tutor her in its intricacies.

Kroger, who has barely spoken to her in all the time she's worked for him, initially rebuffs. But sensing her passion, he eventually agrees, and the two begin weekly sessions in which the pupil soon starts overshadowing her teacher. By the time she's allowed to participate -- in underdog "Rocky" fashion -- in a local tournament, all the principal characters have undergone life-enhancing emotional changes.

That the film works to the degree that it does is largely due to the sensitive performances. Bonnaire delivers a beautifully modulated turn, delineating Helene's liberating transformation in quietly powerful and convincing fashion. Kline, in his first entirely French-speaking role, intriguingly underplays as the mysterious Kroger, and Francis Renaud strongly conveys the husband's complicated feelings of disdain for his wife's new obsession and concern for his marriage.

Production: Mon Voison Prods
Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, Kevin Kline, Francis Renaud, Jennifer Beals, Valerie Lagrange
Director: Caroline Bottaro
Screenwriters: Caroline Bottaro, Caroline Maly, Jeanne Le Guillou
Producers: Dominique Besnehard, Micher Feller, Amelie Latscha
Director of photography: Jean-Claude Larrieu
Editor: Tina Baz
Production designer: Emmanuel de Chavigny
Music: Nicola Piovani
No MPAA rating, 96 minutes
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