|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.|
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.