A scant few minutes into Queen to Play, I recognized what 2011 was lacking: a summer romance. Not Larry Crowne, the forgettable tete a tete starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, but a real romance with all of grown-up love's vagaries and imperfections.
Here is a film with gorgeous scenery, a delicate story and wonderful acting. If you're fatigued by superheroes, wizards and potty-mouth comedies, this is a summer break. Leave your passport at home but be transported to Corsica quicker than you can say "checkmate." The remote Mediterranean island is the backdrop for Queen to Play, released in France as Joueuse, French for "Player."
Each day, Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire) wakes before dawn to clean her lower-middle-class home before leaving to clean the homes of the upper class. One day she is dusting a beautiful mansion and the next she is vacuuming rooms at a seaside hotel.
One fateful morning, Helene is tidying up a hotel suite while a young couple plays chess several feet away on a balcony. She peeks through billowing lace curtains as the couple uses chess as foreplay. Titillated and intrigued, Helene buys a chess set for her husband, Ange (Francis Renaud), as a birthday present.
"But I can't play," he says. "Who am I supposed to play with?"
His ignorance and insensitivity are like a slap. It's quite telling about the state of their marriage.
Helene spots yet another chess set the next day, this time at the secluded home of the mysterious Dr. Kroger, played by Kevin Kline. (Yes, that Kevin Kline, in his first all-French speaking role.) She implores Kroger to teach her the subtleties of the game, which he initially resists but eventually concedes. The relationship never becomes inappropriate, but the small Corsican town begins to rumble with rumors. When Ange confronts Helene about the liaison, she confides that the relationship is intellectual, not sexual.
"That's worse," he says.
Helene begins crawling out of bed in the middle of the night to study chess. While poring over an instruction manual, she reads, "The queen is the most powerful piece." As she contemplates that concept, her life and the movie take an intriguing and romantic turn.
Kline is one of the few actors of his generation that makes his craft look easy. That's how skilled he is. He perfectly underplays the part, allowing the lens and our attention to focus on Bonnaire. A veteran French actress, Bonnaire wears middle age with discontent, intelligence and intoxicating beauty. In a world with too much faux-royalty, she is indeed a queen.
Bonnaire, Kline, Corsica and all of Queen to Play ... c'est magnifique.