Friday, May 08, 2009

Tribeca ’09: Queen to Play

The fact that the queen is the most powerful piece on the chessboard is surely not lost on Hélène. As a put-upon Corsican hotel maid with an insensitive husband, she could use some empowering. That she achieves through the game of chess in Caroline Bottaro’s Queen to Play (trailer here), a buzz-generating film at the recent Tribeca Film Festival.

To earn extra money, Hélène also cleans the villa of Dr. Kröger, an American expat. Watching him play chess with his younger wife stirs something within her—perhaps longings for the sort of relationship she would like to have with her husband. Suddenly, Kröger’s wife is gone, but Hélène’s fascination with the game remains.

Of course, hubby does not exactly share this budding interest, so her chess development is confined to late nights with the electronic chessboard. Frustrated, she approaches the increasingly sullen Kröger for a game. While at first reluctant, Kröger eventually becomes her chess tutor, sharpening her natural aptitude to the point he believes she is ready for tournament play.

To its credit, Queen takes the game of chess seriously instead of using it as a mere plot contrivance. The film’s best scenes show Hélène’s near obsession with the game, as chessboard patterns appear everywhere and common household items suggest problems from the game. However, aside from chess, we never really see her thinking strategically in her every day life. Instead, she seems to simply react to events around her.

Throughout the film, audiences will have a good idea where it is headed, right down to the big match between Hélène and the arrogant chess master. Yet, Bottaro wisely never overplays her hand and resists the lure of cheap emotion. Rather than lurch into Henry Higgins territory, Kröger confines his mentoring to the chessboard and an occasional book recommendation. However, as written, Hélène’s husband Ange, played Francis Renaud, is largely clichéd and occasionally problematically brutish.

Still, Sandrine Bonnaire’s smart, down-to-Earth performance makes Hélène’s transition from mousy maid to self-confident chess master relatively smooth and believable. Sure to get attention for his almost entirely French-speaking role, American actor Kevin Kline is also quite good as Kröger. His early scenes with his wife, played by the still very attractive Jennifer Beals, silently imply much history and romantic heat between them.

Overall, Queen is a pleasant, if predictable story of a late-blooming woman finding her place in the world. With its uplifting story of personal development, effective use of the picturesque Corsican backdrop, and well-known American cast members Kline and Beals, Bottaro’s film seems like a strong candidate for theatrical distribution, so anticipate post-Tribeca screening opportunities in the future.