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Queen to Play - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Queen to Play
Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

Queen to Play is a little different in that it fancies itself a tale of female empowerment, but within the context of chess -- and even turns chess into something a bit sensual. It's a little odd in both cases, but just go with it.

Sandrine Bonnaire plays Hélène, a working-class mom with multiple part-time cleaning jobs, and she's really the reason to watch. Everything revolves around her, and rightly so; she has a pleasant charm that commands attention, shifting between the character's stern concentration as she attempts to figure out the game, and a smile that completely transforms her face.

Hélène has a husband we are supposed to take as inattentive, although Francis Renaud never makes him anything other than likably absent-minded. But this is what leads Hélène's attentions to chess, when she's cleaning a hotel room and sees the room occupants playing out on their balcony. This is where director and co-writer Caroline Bottaro first romanticizes the game in a way never quite done before, as Hélène sees the sensual rapport between the couple, and the camera caresses the woman's arms and nightgown as she moves toward check mating her partner. After this, Hélène fantasizes about being in the same scenario with her husband.

But, when she buys her husband an electronic chess set for his birthday, he's bemused by it and never gives it much thought. Hélène then takes to learning it on her own, until she can learn no more without a human teacher. Enter Kevin Kline, as the reclusive French-speaking "Yankee" (as her husband puts it) whose apartment Hélène cleans. She finds a chess set on one of his shelves, and eventually asks him to teach him. "I'm not advancing on my own," she says. "I have no one else to ask."

And so begins a tentative relationship, which teases us as to the potential to become an affair, but always stops just short. Hélène really just makes a friend in this man, whose reclusiveness, and apparent health issues, are never fully explained. Eventually Kröger tells her she must spread her wings, and that is effectively the story we are seeing. Hélène signs up for a local amateur tournament, and in the end it serves as a catalyst for improved relations with Kröger, her husband, and even her daughter, all pretty much according to script writing formula.

But it's a fairly pleasant journey to take with her, especially when it comes to her daughter (Alexandra Gentil), who moves from teenage resentment to admiration for a mother finally moving out of her comfort zone. It doesn't necessarily always make sense: the closest Hélène and Kröger get to getting romantic with each other is a scene in which, instead of playing on a board, they play a game of chess by simply stating the pieces and the board spaces they would move them to. It plays like they're almost making love, and really, who plays chess like that?

And yet, somehow Queen to Play never quite goes off the rails. It's just a pleasant ride with a bit of unexpected but not altogether unpleasant scenery.

Sandrine Bonnaire is a chess aficionado in 'Queen to Play'.

Overall: B
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