Friday, May 1, 2009

TRIBECA: QUEEN TO PLAY -- Bottaro's first full-length is too good not to get a release

Sandrine Bonnaire, right, with Kevin Kline in Queen to Play

A shoo-in to attract foreign film buffs who enjoy arthouse movies of the more mainstream variety, QUEEN TO PLAY (Joueuse, in the original French), which made its American debut this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, is a smart, small but intensely enjoyable movie -- one that I think would draw the kind of satisfied, word-of-mouth audience that made last year's The Grocer's Son an arthouse hit.

It stars a fine actress -- one who is consistently popular with this particular audience -- Sandrine Bonnaire (Intimate Strangers, Vagabond, Her Name is Sabine) and our own Kevin Kline (doing his first full-out French-language role), with help from Jennifer Beals (looking gorgeous in a small but pivotal role) and French hunk Francis Renaud (The Code, Chrysalis), who brings great warmth and humanity as Bonnaire's confused husband. Written and directed by Caroline Bottaro (above, right), a newcomer who has previously directed only one 15-minute short, the movie deftly juggles intelligence and emotion, plot and theme, bringing everything home to rest in thoroughly winning fashion without, thankfully, overplaying anything.

Ms. Bonnaire, left, essays the role of Hélène, a cleaning lady capable of a good deal more than washing and wiping. (Another under-used cleaning woman named Seraphine just walked away with this year's Cesar for best film and best actress: has France an untapped resource in its femmes de ménage?) One day, as Hélène cleans a room, the inhabitants of which are out on the terrace, she becomes fascinated while watching through windblown curtains as the pair plays chess. This fascination grows even more in the home of another of her clients (Professor Kröger, played by Kline) who also enjoys the game.

Chess has had a long, if checkered, history in cinema -- from a classic like The Seventh Seal to one of the worst movies ever to win a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar (Dangerous Moves) to the somewhat obvious and disappointing Searching for Bobby Fischer and that pivotal scene in the original (and quite pretentious: the remake was so much more fun) Thomas Crown Affair. In the annals of chess-on-film, Queen to Play may be among the best, due to Ms Bottaro's ability to suggest an idea rather than bat us over the head with it. What draws Hélène to this game? It probably has to do with the way in which she, as a woman, can relate to her male partner while playing. This will come to effect her relationship with her husband, her client (Mr. Kline's professor) and finally some other important men. As I say, all of this is merely suggested, as is so much else in the movie. But mulling over Bottaro's many "suggestions" adds immensely to our pleasure.

Also at work here is an idea similar to what riveted audiences to that great movie Babe. Rather than watching a pig being told that he cannot do something for which he is clearly talented but lacks the canine qualifications, we see a woman begin to excel at a man's game -- and then pay for it. This, of course, sends out all sorts of feminist feelers (not to mention the issue of class: the couple's daughter brings this to the fore), but fortunately Ms Bottaro allows nothing to go too far. Her discretion graces everything from sex to terminal illness. She possesses a remarkable ability to give us just enough information and/or visuals; this, coupled to the European sensibility not to pry, allows certain moments to skirt sentimentality but quickly settle back into sense and strength.

Ms Bonnaire is just splendid: Her ability to hold so much inside (while making us aware of every scrap of it) is a joy to observe. She manages great acting with as few flourishes as anyone else performing today. Kline is gruff, bearded, and still as sexy and intelligent as ever. He ought to have had a better film career, but perhaps he will start working in French (or Italian? Spanish? Why not!). Beals continues to enchant (more now than back in those Flashdance days) and I will look forward with great anticipation to seeing M. Renaud again soon.

At the Q&A after the Tribeca screening (to a very receptive audience, I might add), Ms Bottaro (shown right, with translator Lilia Pino Blouin) talked about raising the money for her film (not easy -- and not. unfortunately, unusual), its locations (the island of Corsica: beautiful!), the casting (they were looking for an American actor who spoke French with an accent: Voilà, Mr. Kline!). For his part, this popular-with-the-intelligentsia actor told us that, yes, he had a nodding acquaintance with the game of chess, but that the most difficult part of the movie for him was learning all the various "chess" terms -- in French. Ms Bonnaire fielded an interesting question about the movie's big sex scene (it's with the character's husband: how European!) and how difficult was it to move from a kind of rape to making love. Not difficult at all, she told us, as the intentions and needs were all quite clear in the script.

Kevin Kline, flanked by Caroline Bottaro, left, and Sandrine Bonnaire
at the Tribeca Film Festival screening of Queen to Play.

As of now, we are told that distributors are indeed sniffing around the film with interest. Well, one of them better get smart and pick up the scent. This one's a clear winner in terms of what's on view -- the conception and its execution. Only its possible box-office remains in question. Properly handled, the film should prove an arthouse bread-winner, as well. It plays one last time at Tribeca: Saturday, May 2, at 6pm at the AMC Village VII.


CriticNYC said...

Very nice full review well done, thanks, excellent guide - at least I imagine so, since I was unable to see. The final Sat screening was a sellout where even the rush line for returns was about fifty people long, and only 20 got in, not including me.

Should get distribution, let's hope so. Most women in line seemed attracted to Kevin Klein, not so much the story!

James van Maanen, said...

Sorry you didn't get in, CriticNYC -- it's a particular bummer to wait patiently on a cancellation line and STILL be turned away. But maybe you will get the opportunity to view, once the film gets a distributor. A lot of us are hoping to see this film released.

Re Mr. Kline: I take it these women were middle-aged and over? Not that it matters, but I kinda thought Tribeca attracted mostly the young.... If they WERE young, this should do wonders for Kline's ego. Is there a current "in" word (like "Cougar") to describe older men who attract and/or go for younger women? Probably not, since this routine has been SOP for centuries now. Funny how most "names" -- cougar, slut and the all the rest -- are applied exclusively to women, never to men, because in the male world, the same actions used to brand women as somehow sleazy are just taken for granted when done by the boys. Forgive my ramblings, but your interesting comment pushed me down this road!

CriticNYC said...

Well, the women concerned were young, as it happens, except for one, who was youngish, and there was also a young man behind me who seemed to know Kevin Klein was in it but not the story.

Interesting how you start playing with stereotypes when provoked by this idea. Ability to handle standard phrases well is a required attribute of most movie reviewing here, it seems, but I hasten to say you do it very skilfully to a level where your writing transcends and triumphs over cliche, a fluency I envy.

You may come from a tradition in America where girls are tagged as "sluts" etc but I have never been subjected to that thank God. I retain a naive romanticism where women are angels unless suddenly revealed as untrustworthy, which hopefully is seldom.

I mention this because that is precisely what happened to me after the line disintegrated, when I went off with a young person of Latin aspect and movie level attractions, and we hung out in Union Square sipping coconut shells from Whole Foods.

Unfortunately later we dropped in on a book party spotted when walking past and dammit if she didn't surreptitiously erase the two good photos I had taken of her among several more she had culled earlier, on the pretext of taking a couple more of me, which she was good at (she ruthlessly tilted the camera to get things in, which is a rare move among amateurs). These ones were meant to be kept however and her action was a grave betrayal of trust, so grave that they had no value after all anyway.

That ended that.

Queen to Play might have been a disappointment too given that as far as one can tell from your review it seems fairly clear that there was no physical entanglement between chambermaid and Klein.

The same with her husband would be likely to lack the frisson of forbidden or free love, I would think, even as an ex pat European myself.

James van Maanen, said...

Wow-- interesting. Sorry about your date. Could she have accidentally erased said photos by trying to take new ones (I don't know much about cell phone photos)?

The intimacy between Bonnaire and Kline is actually better than sex, in this case (believe me, this is not something I would often claim), but you'd have to see the movie to know what I mean. As to her husband, it turns out that there is plenty of frisson there, but this, too, is because of what happens and how.

And thanks for your kind words about my writing.

CriticNYC said...

Intimacy better than sex is beyond what one hopes for in a movie and rarely finds, but is certainly the ultimate recommendation for a film like this. Since screeners are not available I fervently hope this one makes it to release.

The scamp purposely erased a very fine photo on a very good camera with a Leica lens, thus betraying a destructive impulse symptomatic of a sad insecurity which life has bred in her, which one hopes will eventually be salved by kindness and admission to rooted society which she will find only when she abandons her current defensive unreliability, a hard bridge to cross and possibly the theme of a minor motion picture if one had time to write it.

Kevin Kline lives around the corner from me and projects an even more decided decency in real life than he does on film. Surely he is not just liked by the intelligentsia as one reviewer wrote -I cannot check if it was you till this comment box is gone.

James van Maanen, said...

"Liked by the intelligentsia" was indeed me. That's my take, and I don't mean it to demean his impressive talent. But I've long felt that his combo of intelligence and style (his last year's Cyrano was impressive!) is far above the level of the "mainstream."

criticnyc said...

Darn it I have to accept your judgment even though it defeats my faith in democratic wisdom which was still hanging by a thread.

On the other hand, I think that some would object to your - our -elitist stance. At least you have proved that you have the right to say it. These are good reviews, just what the space advantages of the Web and its lack of block headed editor-gatekeepers promised but hasn't often delivered.

Reporting on the discussion afterwards is EXACTLY what people need to have in hand and you have done it!

Even the title of this blog is an ideal mnemonic for itself - it makes no sense that I can see so far but somehow it sticks in the mind so I would allow if I hadn't praised you already and fear being suspected of sycophancy that it is brilliant in some way that is still beyond me.

Anyhow please carry on this is what is needed. Perhaps you will review Rudo y Cursi which was screened at Sony today and which the gods decided I should also miss.

James van Maanen, said...

Funny you should ask (about RUDO Y CURSI). I did indeed see this one yesterday and the review will be up later today. The gods ought to have decreed my missing it, too, as I was supposed to babysit the grandkids. But, as this was the only one of R-y-C's screenings that I could attend, I begged off and let my companion do the honors. (In retrospect, my time might have been better spent with the children.)

I like the TrustMovies moniker, too. (I had to look up the meaning of mnemonic, yet again: assisting or intending to assist memory. Yes, it does that, too.) Of course it's ridiculous on some level, yet I believe in it. You just have to learn how, when and why to trust them, or not. Tricky -- but then isn't life usually that?

And next time we're at the same screening, how about coming over and saying hello? Look for the tall (6' 8"), old guy who's sitting where there's a LOT of leg room.... (At the Sony screening room, thankfully, this applies to ALL the seats!)

CriticNYC said...

Thanks for the "you didn't miss much". Look forward to your review, though. Also of Serious Moonlight, if you write one, which I suspect you may not, since it lacked real truths of most kinds, that is, those outside Hollywood, for me. However, it was interesting enough for a good mind to deconstruct for my edification!

Sure will try to connect
in the theater of real life at next Sony showing (screenings for me are usually at Magno). A 6'8" guy will be easy to spot, though I believe the "old" label is anachronistic - fifties is the new thirties if the mind is active, especially if the heart is young, as it is in all movie lovers.

Write on!

James van Maanen, said...

Haven't seen Serious Moonlight yet, and if I don't make any further screening then will wait for the DVD release.
Most of the screenings I attend are at Magno, too, so look for me. Assayas' wonderful SUMMER HOURS was there just last night. See that one, if you can. I run very hot and cold on this director but am defintely hot on that one!
So 50 is the new 30, huh? Guess that makes death the new 80? Well, it's all relative, but relatively crappy, the older you get. Trust me (if not movies).
Further, how about just sending me your next email to , so that our missives won't have to be so f-ing public!