By Brian Lafferty
April 29, 2011 (San Diego) – The great sportswriter Grantland Rice said, “It’s not whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” Queen to Play purports to be a film about a housewife in a mid-life crisis and stale marriage who finds happiness through chess. It then ends in a Big Game. The movie fails on both counts.
Sandrine Bonnaire plays Hélène, the aforementioned housewife. She works as a chambermaid at a hotel and for American doctor Kröger (Kevin Kline, who proves himself adept at speaking French). She learns chess from the reticent Kröger. Her life begins to turn around, except her marriage, which becomes increasingly troubled.
This is one of those movies where nothing happens. Hélène performs mundane chores like changing bed sheets. Chess games between her and Kröger are filmed passively. Everything is minimalist; the dialogue, characters, acting, and even the exteriors are low-key despite being set in Corsica.
Sometimes this approach works but not in Queen to Play. The story theoretically could have made for a thought-provoking character study. Director and screenwriter Caroline Bottaro executes it wrong. The minimalism doesn’t enhance the story. It becomes an affectation that only makes the movie boring and long even though the running time is only ninety-six minutes.
Throughout the film I questioned Bonnaire’s acting approach to her character. Hélène frequently stares off into space. Wherever she goes and whatever she does, she always looks lost and doesn’t know what to do. She has only one facial expression and it’s blank; smiling is a bigger chore for her than an entire day’s work.
She looks like an appealing actress; I haven’t seen any of her other films so I can’t say if she’s a good or a bad actress. For this film, she makes a poor character approach. Maybe it could have worked somehow, but it just doesn’t come off the right way. She does have a somewhat mesmerizing presence. However, either something is missing or what she has just doesn’t connect.
Queen to Play evoked memories of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal. It is one of, if not the best, chess movies in cinema. In that movie, a Knight (Max Von Sydow), reeling from the Black Plague, plays a game of chess with Death (Bengt Ekerot). If he wins he lives, if he loses he dies.
It isn’t the outcome that matters. More interesting is the actual game play and discussions between the Knight and Death. The Seventh Seal uses the game of chess to comment on and explore the themes of life, death, religion, and whether God exists.
Queen to Play uses chess to explore certain themes. It doesn’t cover what The Seventh Seal so expertly did; instead the movie attempts to explore female empowerment, middle age, and mid-life crisis.
It doesn’t succeed on that level due to the minimalist plot, characters, and approach. The generic dialogue between Hélène and Kröger exacerbates the problem.
The movie, as I predicted, ends in a Big Game. The Big Game here is a chess tournament. You don’t get a cookie for correctly guessing if she wins it.
The old saying that it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game has become almost a cliché over the last century. Grantland Rice is right, though. I just wish Queen to Play knew how to play the game.
Queen to Play opens today at the Landmark Ken Cinema.
A Zeitgeist Films Release. Director: Caroline Bottaro. Writer: Caroline Bottaro, based on the novel by Bertina Henrichs. Cinematographer: Jean-Claude Larrieu. Music: Nicola Piovani. Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, Kevin Kline, Valerie Lagrange, Francis Renaud, Alexandra Gentil, Alice Pol. In French, with English subtitles. Unrated.