Peering through the silk curtains of a swank hotel room in coastal France, cleaning woman Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire) dwells on two lovers, one of them a nightgown-clad Jennifer Beals, as they engage in the foreplay-est bout of chess since the original Thomas Crown Affair. It’s enough to rock her world, and with good reason: Hélène, as we quickly surmise, is a repressed matriarch with a neglecting husband (Francis Renaud) reluctant to do date nights, a bitchy daughter sucking up their blue-collar wages and a life barely lived.
Her interest piqued, she thus notices the chess set in the tony manse of one of her employers, brooding expat recluse Kröger (Kevin Kline, speaking credible French). Soon enough, Kröger is educating Rita ... er, schooling Hélène in all things Bobby Fischer. She proves a natural, wouldn’t you know, but will her budding self-actualization ruin her marriage? Will the hermit emerge from his cave? Will an unconvincing, bullshit plot development throw a wrench in the relationship between tutor and tutee?
To its credit, Caroline Bottaro’s Queen to Play—less horrifically named Joueuse (“playful”) elsewhere—doesn’t answer all of those questions as predictably as you’d think. Still, it follows the Educating Rita template so close it might as well be a remake, albeit one without a single joke. Serious, hushed, gentle, Bottaro’s middlebrow thumbtwiddler tries to hide its true face.
And thanks to good casting, it almost fares well. Not only do both leads underplay, they refuse to beg for our pity, despite the script’s numerous and diligent attempts to make them seem pathetic. Kline is as withdrawn as he’s usually outsized. Bonnaire is a perspicacious screen presence. She was 15 when she honed her craft working for Jacques Rivette, Agnes Varda and the notoriously difficult Maurice Pialat ( A Nos Amour is on Netflix Instant, by the way). Frankly, she’s too good for this movie, and her introspective performance, bordering on cold, is the exact opposite this genre typically requires. Her sharp and naturally moving work makes Queen to Play as tolerable as it could ever be.
2014 Films: The Year’s Most Likely