Female liberation, it seems, can take many forms, and the route Caroline Bottaro navigates in her debut directorial effort is chess. In “Queen to Play,” which Bottaro adapted from Bertina Henrichs’ novel, Sandrine Bonnaire plays Helene, a hard-working maid in a hotel on the island of Corsica, who finds herself so attracted to the game that it threatens her job and family but offers her release of a sort she’s never even contemplated before.
Helene’s married to Ange (Francis Renaud), who works at the docks, and their daughter Marie (Valerie Lagrange) is at what might be termed an awkward age, rebellious and demanding beyond their means. That makes her job as a chambermaid all the more essential to their wellbeing, and she’s the apple of her boss’s eye, willingly putting in overtime and altering her schedule as needed—unlike her colleague Lisa (Alexandra Gentil), a far flightier person. But when Helene sees a guest couple (the woman, identified in the credits only as an American, played by Jennifer Beals) engaged in a game of chess with romantic overtones on their patio, she becomes entranced. And she follows up by buying her husband a small chess set for his birthday. He’s bewildered by the gift, since he doesn’t play, or want to learn. But Helene begins using it on her own.
She realizes, though, that chess can’t be self-taught, and she seeks guidance from Dr. Kroger (Kevin Kline), a reclusive, standoffish fellow for whom she cleans house once a week. Still grieving the loss of his wife, he’s initially resistant, but agrees to teach her; and gradually he comes to realize that she has a special gift for the game and works to nurture it, eventually suggesting that she take part in a local competition. Unfortunately, her obsession takes a toll on her relationship with her boss and is even more threatening to her marriage, since Ange looks upon her contact with Kroger as a kind of betrayal. (And indeed though it’s utterly proper, the connection between the two inevitably has an element of subdued passion to it.)
Helene’s success in the competition, despite the sponsors’ initial concerns about her background and lack of competitive rating, is fairly well assured here; one can only imagine the grumbling in any audience if she lost in the first round of the tournament, tossed away her chessboard and returned to changing bed linens and making dinner for Ange. “Queen to Play” is as formulaic in its own way as “Rocky” (or, if you prefer, “Searching for Bobby Fischer”), but it’s a more cerebral, sophisticated use of the formula than usual.
And it’s very attractively made. Bottaro has adapted the story cannily, and her direction lets it unfold in a leisurely but not sluggish fashion. She and cinematographer Jean-Philippe Laroch make fine use of the Corsican exteriors, and together with production designer Emmanuel De Chauvin draw an effective distinction between the mundane character of Helene’s ordinary life and the almost magical ambience of Kroger’s house. Bonnaire projects strength without becoming flinty, Kline mellows charmingly in her presence, and Beals makes an ethereal figure of inspiration.
Together they all elevate “Queen to Play” from the obvious feminist fable it might have been to one that’s more subtle and evocative.