A late-blooming obsession with chess leads a middle-aged hotel maid to reinvent herself in “Queen to Play,” scribe Caroline Bottaro’s directorial debut. The character’s trajectory might have tilted toward whimsy with a less assured interpretation than Sandrine Bonnaire’s, but the thesp’s slow transformation — from hard-working wife and mother to fey creature of complex strategies and secret smiles — proves riveting, for both the audience and her fictional mentor (Kevin Kline). Like Sebastian Silva’s “The Maid,” “Queen” posits a radically different approach to class and gender empowerment. Skedded for an August release in Gaul, this cerebral chick flick could tickle arthouse fancies.
Helene (Bonnaire), changing sheets in a Corsican luxury hotel, spies a man and a woman (Jennifer Beals, as radiant muse) playing chess on the balcony. Aroused by their sensual exchanges over the chessboard — helmer Bottaro gets full mileage from closeups of languid limbs and teasing glances — Helene tries to ignite sexual sparks with boatyard-worker hubby Ange (Francis Renaud) by giving him an electronic chessboard, and understandably meets with puzzled incomprehension.
Increasingly captivated by the game, Helene stays up nights poring over the board. Her single-mindedness is not without its comic edge: She becomes upset when, over a romantic dinner, her husband unknowingly gobbles up chessmen she has fashioned out of bits of bread. At times, director Bottaro moves into mystical mode: High-angle shots animate Helene over the hotel’s checkered floor, dissolving or multiplying her image in imagined gambits.
Hitting a wall in her attempts to teach herself the game, Helene persuades a mysteriously ailing American expatriate whose house she cleans, the reclusive Dr. Kroger (Kline), to play, eventually checkmating him as her talent emerges. But she’s torn between her chess fixation and the demands of her family, who consider her new passion a form of infidelity.
This is the year for cleaning-women to blossom, as evidenced by the Sundance-feted “The Maid” and Martin Provost’s Cesar-showered costumer “Seraphine.” But whereas the protags in those films represent lumpen proles, Bonnaire’s elegance is bone-deep. Helene’s rise in the intellectually elitist pastime thus reads less as class transgression and more as ascension to a “true” caste.
Though her script stresses social repression, Bottaro helms “Queen” like an oddball romantic comedy, with chess as a benign form of sex-tinged interchange: Amid mounting excitement, Helene and Kroger complicitly spur each other on, slapping their clocks and recording their moves at a frenzied rhythm. Bottaro also romantically exploits the lush Corsican landscape, with its winding corniches and mountainous seaside vistas, as a measure of the vast potential opening before Helene.
Bonnaire’s intransigence, marking her performances from Agnes Varda’s “Vagabond” to Claude Chabrol’s “La Ceremonie,” elevates this clever feel-good lark: Helene gets to have her fling, a rejuvenated marriage, a more joyous mother-daughter relationship, a deeper appreciation of nature and a hobby horse she can ride clear to Paris.