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Acting the eccentric intellectual has apparently become so easy for Kevin Kline that he’s decided to do it in French. Kline speaks not a word of English in Queen to Play, the debut film from writer-director Caroline Bottaro, adapted from Bertina Henrichs’ novel. Le Francais de Kline is occasionally flat but mostly flawless—and besides, that raised eyebrow of vexation is universal.
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But Queen to Play’s story belongs to Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire), a married maid whose life isn’t miserable but isn’t exactly exciting, either. Having moved to a small French town to get married, Hélène has no social life outside of her prickly husband, Ange (Francis Renaud), and her pissy teenage daughter (Alexandra Gentil). One day she’s cleaning a hotel room when she’s taken with a good-looking couple, all sexy bed-head and silky underthings, playing chess on a sunny balcony. Soon she’s swiping the lingerie the woman left behind and buying an electronic chess set for Ange’s birthday, which he doesn’t exactly accept with warmth. Nor does he respond to said lingerie when it’s time for lights out.
So Hélène proceeds to teach herself the game. “The queen is the most powerful piece,” she reads with a mixture of surprise and a sense of hope. She’s also noticed a chess board while cleaning the home of the rumpled, crabby Kroger (Kline). Though he barely speaks to Hélène other than to admonish her to leave things where she found them, she becomes emboldened and asks Kroger if he’d be willing to play chess with her in exchange for free housecleaning.
The next week they’re playing tense, weird games, and, unsurprisingly, Kroger slowly warms up to her—and she keeps getting better, to the point where he suggests she enter a tournament. In the meantime, Hélène’s paying no attention to the time she’s spent away from home. Ange gets suspicious and starts following her; her daughter accuses her of being “in love.” Both are embarrassed that the whole town seems to think Hélène and Kroger are having an affair.
Queen to Play ends up as any sports movie would, though the theme of female empowerment is much stronger, even in the lighter-than-air package in which it’s presented. When Kroger insists to Hélène that she’s good enough for a Paris tournament, she doesn’t believe him—so he unveils to her what the inherently sad man has probably never shown anybody, his late wife’s paintings. She never did anything with her artwork, he says, because although she was very good, “her doubt was stronger than her painting.” It’s one of a handful of small, touching moments in this trifle, perhaps the only film in which a board game leads to a woman’s happiness.