If there’s one thing directors love, it’s a fondled chess piece. There might not be a single film in which one is handled in an even remotely normal way. They’re twirled, gently thumbed, and zoomed in on—never picked up and just moved around like a chunk of plastic. Helene, the repressed Corsican chambermaid at the center of French director Caroline Bottaro’s first feature film, Queen to Play, indeed instills even pawns with an exaggerated sensuality.
With her deep-set eyes and steely reserve, Helene (played by Sandrine Bonnaire) resembles one of Bergman’s lovers — a middle aged Liv Ullman or a Cries and Whispers-era Harriet Andersson. In her poplin dresses and perfect little espadrilles, she just might be the chicest cleaning lady around, more like the object of art house fetish than an underpaid, overworked laborer. One morning while doing up a hotel room, Helene notices some guests playing chess out on the balcony. Through the billowing gauze of the curtain, she observes their moves and meditation: The women’s silk slip falls off her shoulder and the man’s voice — “Checkmate!” — sounds surreally loud.
From then on, Helene teaches herself chess alone each night with an electronic set. She grows increasingly obsessed — practicing moves with bottles of lotion in the bathroom, forming pieces out of bread at the dinner table, hopping around on the hotel’s checkered balcony as if she herself is a knight. Aside from cleaning the rooms at the hotel, she also works for Dr. Kroger, a sick, black-clad widower played by Kevin Kline (in his first role completely in French.) She notices a chess set in his office one afternoon and timidly asks him to play with her. Kroger is taken aback by the proposition, but eventually agrees. Soon enough, a secret, mostly silent friendship is forged. She’s a quick study, and each week he tutors her, often late into the night and to the rage of her previously unresponsive husband. Helene’s hairdresser warns her that “people are talking” and neighbors are calling her “The Chess Case,” which feels a little eye-rolly — this isn’t medieval Europe after all, and chess is hardly an eccentric hobby.
Helene’s meetings with Dr. Kroger seem almost like therapy sessions, complete with transference, and their games are charged with a quiet eroticism. Predictably, as her game improves, Helene gains confidence: She’s sooner to smile and her face softens a bit. Their intuitive plays and met gazes is meant to imply a noble rapport — that chess makes their minds mutually transparent to each other. But the relationship isn’t granted enough dialogue and feels only outlined, as does Helene’s infatuation with the game itself. When Dr. Kroger asks her, in a moment of candor, why chess is so important to her, she tells him that she doesn’t know. It’s fine for the viewer to understand more about a film’s protagonist than the protagonist does about herself, but such imbalance demands a little more scaffolding from secondary characters, which Queen to Play decidedly lacks. And when Helene enters and wins a local amateur tournament, though the final round is protracted and scored with dramatic music, it doesn’t feel as though her victory is the conclusion of a realistically plotted trajectory or a correctly weighted process of self-discovery.
It’s Helene’s relationship with Dr. Kroger that’s supposed to be the central dynamic of the film, but Bonnarie’s performance is really only particularly perceptive in the domestic scenes, which are actually remarkably acute. On the evening of her husband’s birthday, for instance, Helene changes into the stolen slip and scampers into bed, adjusting its ripples with embarrassed haste as if to disguise her unusual sexiness. It’s a fraught feeling that all women experience — wanting to seduce by arrangement while looking unaware — that’s usually only depicted in film by way of cartoonishly tousled hair or a theatrical squaring of the shoulders. Helene’s husband himself is rendered in mostly broad strokes (neglectful, drinks too much), but when he finally begins to notice Helene’s newfound self-assurance, his attention is a realistic mixture of attraction and resentment. After getting home late one night from a game with Dr. Kroger, Helene finds her husband wrestling with a burnt chicken at the kitchen sink. He turns to her — sad but sexually charged — and embraces her awkwardly with his forearms. We only see her back and his hands, frozen in the air, away from her blouse so as not to dirty it with poultry char. We wait for him to abandon his consideration in the heat of the moment, to grab her lustfully or grease back her hair, but he doesn’t.
It’s these small moment’s that are the film’s best, but they are too few and far between. Before the tournament, Dr. Kroger tells Helene that it’s “better to play a lousy plan logically than no plan at all,” which is, unfortunately, exactly what Bottaro’s done here; she plays consistently, if obviously, through to the end, but it’s not the right game. Framed like a sports movie — hard work, minor setbacks, eventual victory — Queen to Play is perfectly pleasant to watch, but its attention is focused on the wrong places: on the entire board rather than the individual players.