Movie Review

Queen to Play

Sensual chess moves in ‘Queen’

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 6, 2011

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What an odd fish “Queen to Play’’ is! A French drama about a repressed wife who blossoms into newfound sensuality when she discovers the game of chess, the film has a bizarre polyglot cast and a tone stranded hesitantly between the knowing and the naive, the sexy and the stolid. If you’ve been dying to see Kevin Kline in his first French-speaking role or Jennifer Beals in her first chess-playing one, here it is. Your move.

The film’s star and one of its two craggy beauties — the other is the island of Corsica, where “Queen to Play’’ is set — is Sandrine Bonnaire, once the wayward adolescent of films like “Vagabond’’ (1985) and “Monsieur Hire’’ (1989) and now a strikingly angular presence. Her character, Helene, works as a maid in a hotel and for private clients; one day she peeps in on a couple (Beals and Dominic Gould) seducing each other over a chess game and she’s hooked.

Is it the romance of chess that grabs her, or the rules? It’s never entirely clear. Helene’s housepainter husband, Ange (Francis Renaud), and their teenage daughter (Alexandra Gentil) are convinced she’s having an affair when in fact she’s sneaking off for games with a fussy, ailing academic named Dr. Kroger (Kline). There’s a love story here, but the object of Helene’s ardor is the board rather than the bed. When these two whisper sweet nothings, they’re chess moves.

For a movie about psycho-spiritual awakening, Bonnaire is awfully dour, but that’s partly the point: Helene approaches the game with the fervor of a religious convert. She starts seeing moves everywhere — in floor tiles, in thin air. By the end of “Queen to Play,’’ the heroine is taking on an all-male world of competitive players, and director Caroline Bottaro tries to show us how a timid woman might herself become a regal and empowered queen, able to move in any direction and as far as she wants.

A more experienced filmmaker — this is Bottaro’s first feature after a successful screenwriting career — might tighten this story until it feels thrillingly inevitable. Instead, “Queen to Play’’ meanders and feints, allowing Kline to ham it up (the doctor develops a classic case of Movie Wasting Disease, signaled by X-rays placed around his apartment and the occasional discreet cough) and never convincingly telling us what turns Helene on about her new passion. For all the talk, there’s not a lot of chess here, and the game remains stubbornly on the level of metaphor. You don’t feel rooked, exactly, but by movie’s end you’re more than ready for the check.

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QUEEN TO PLAY Directed by: Caroline Bottaro

Written by: Bottaro, based on a novel by Bertina Henrichs

Starring: Sandrine Bonnaire, Kevin Kline, Francis Renaud, Jennifer Beals

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 101 minutes

Unrated (as PG-13: mild violence and sexuality, brief nudity, hot chess)

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