★★ / ★★★★
Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire) is a cleaning lady with problems that are likely to go unnoticed despite one taking a good look at her. As someone who cleans hotel rooms, it is a part of her job to put on a smile even if she does not have much to smile about. While Hélène is cleaning a couple’s room, she cannot help but notice Kröger (Kevin Kline) and a mysterious woman (Jennifer Beals) playing chess out in the patio: the way the players touch the chess pieces, the way they caress each other’s hands, and the suggestive smiles they send toward one another.
Hélène is aroused by the couple’s interaction because the excitement in her own marriage is lacking as of late. So, the cleaning lady decides to buy an electronic chessboard for her husband, Ange (Francis Renaud), in hopes of rekindling the spark that she experienced from observing the couple.
“Queen to Play,” based on a novel by Bertina Henrichs, is relaxed in mood as if we were observing a tropical vacation. While it works occasionally because it suppresses the majority of the emotions that the characters might be feeling, especially our protagonist’s, paving a way for us to sympathize with her silent suffering, at times it feels too mellow, dangerously soporific.
Much of the camera’s attention is on the chess games between Hélène and Kröger. This is exciting at first because Hélène has taught herself how to play. When it is revealed to us that Hélène actually has a gift for playing chess, the images become less interesting because it utilizes the same technique during the matches. The players’ reactions are always front and center—a smirk here, a smile there—when there are actually times I was more interested in how the game is being played.
As someone who loves how to play chess, I was curious not only about the moves employed but how the characters grab onto the pieces and move them from one place to another. Is there a difference in force between grabbing one’s piece versus an opponent’s? In order words, while it is nice that the we have a chance to observe faces, it might have benefited the picture if the camera lingered a little bit on the board, the hands, and the body language. With intellectual games like chess and poker, a myriad of information can be acquired through movements, as if one were observing a dance.
For example, in my experience, although a person’s face may seem collected, a hint of tremor of the limbs may suggest an ideation of chicanery. The best players notice it all and I was not convinced that the film is able to deliver the essence of how it is really like to become engulfed in a heart-pounding match.
I enjoyed the film most, however, whenever Hélène and Ange try to make of something out of whatever they have. Though their marriage is obviously in a rut, we feel that they still care for one another. Ange’s jealousy involving his wife spending a lot of her time at Kröger’s is proof that she is still important to him even though he cannot (or will not) show it.
Written and directed by Caroline Bottaro, I wished “Joueuse” had focused more on the eroticism that Hélène feels toward the game, her husband, and, yes, even Kröger, her mentor. I wanted to feel aroused as she has about the game and the men in her life. That is the picture’s most fascinating angle and it is most unfortunate that the script almost feels too shy to deal with it directly.