Judge Jake Ware is pitching the idea of strip chess to the Game Show Network.
"If you take risks, you might lose, but if you don't take risks, you always lose."
Queen To Play has received quite a bit of favourable attention which baffles me. Sure, the scenery is nice, the leads are charming, and the soundtrack soothing, but I found Queen To Play a clumsily executed film that did not quite know which direction it was headed in.
Facts of the Case
Modest and humble hotel chambermaid Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire, À nos amours) lives in Corsica, works two jobs and looks after a mojo-less husband and a bratty and materialistic teenage daughter who give her little satisfaction or respect. After she witnesses the sexiest game of chess you're ever likely to see, Hélène develops a taste for the game and discovers some inner potential that she was not aware of.
Queen To Play unfolds like three films from three entirely different genres. The first 30 minutes seem to hint at a reawakening of passion within Hélène after she witnesses the 'passion' ignited between two lovers over a game of chess. This is a stretch, but I went with it expecting the film to be about the rekindling of passion between Hélène and her frigid husband. Suddenly, however, in the second third of the film, the tone changes as Helene seeks out a fatherly/mentoring relationship with the surly but ultimately nice and gentlemanly Kröger, played by Kevin Kline (The Big Chill). There is a weighty ambiance of the 'will they/won't they' kind hanging over this segment like a thick Corsican mist, but it ultimately leads nowhere. Finally, in the last third, the film shifts gears again and metamorphoses into a straight forward 'final battle' sequence, where Hélène has to overcome the best regional chess players including the sexist and snobbish director of the tournament, a sudden villain for the audience to cheer against. Her reward is self respect and the possibility of a more open and rewarding future.
All these elements have their charm and could have led to a satisfying film, but Queen To Play feels more like a muddle than a carefully considered film. There are strands that come and go without any explanation or seemingly without purpose. Take Kröger, for instance. He is introduced as a womanizer, but then he never makes a move on Hélène. He is angry about something, but we are never told what exactly that might be. There are hints that he is ill, but this is never developed either. He never leaves his home. Why? Is he heartbroken? Sick, perhaps? Maybe he is agoraphobic? We never find out, and I was left with the impression that Kröger's story was far greater and that he and Hélène would have had a richer and more explicit impact on one another, but that their character arcs were reduced to the bare necessities in the editing process. Other strands of the film suffer the same half baked fate. I can only imagine that the original book by Bertina Henrichs contained a great deal more detail and storytelling that was lost in translation.
Director Caroline Bottaro has some lovely ideas, but again, I felt that they were not always well executed. Take for instance a sequence during which Hélène and Kröger play chess. In order to suggest a passage of time of days or even weeks, Bottaro has Hélène wear different dresses as she cuts between Kröger's close-up and Helene's. But Kröger's clothes never change, the lighting is always the same and the chessboard appears to show the same game being played, so one can not be certain upon first viewing whether this sequence was intending to show a passage of time or whether it was merely a series of continuity errors.
Despite all these complaints, I did not dislike the film. In fact, there is plenty to like. The Corsican landscape is beautifully filmed, with exterior shots oozing with Mediterranean charm. Sandrine Bonnaire and Kevin Kline make charming leads. After French Kiss I was a bit apprehensive of Kline attempting his first French role, but found him reserved and suitable in the role of Kröger. The supporting cast add a nice layer to the film especially the comical pairing of Valérie Lagrange and Alice Pol as a tough hotel owner and her rebellious chambermaid. Finally there is the soothing soundtrack work by Nicola Piovani which, although repetitive, adds an extra dimension to the film that greatly increases the mood and charm of the piece.
The DVD is presented in a decent 1.85:1 transfer that gives the beautiful Corsican scenery a bright and saturated quality. Audio comes in 5.1 and 2.0 options, both well executed. The French soundtrack is accompanied by English subtitles.
There are two extras, a trailer and a 20 minute featuerette that includes interviews with the cast and crew and shows quite a bit of behind the scenes footage. Additionally, the DVD includes a rather nice printed interview with director Bottaro and actress Bonnaire.
Whether you enjoy this or not will depend entirely on your ability to appreciate a half cooked film. Queen To Play is not terrible, but it's not very good either. The film is too confused and confusing, and the 'final battle' is both clichéd and utter fantasy. Although, with the right expectations and a couple of glasses of wine, you stand a good chance of liking Queen To Play. If nothing else, you'll probably put a trip to Corsica on your bucket list and perhaps partake in a game or two of Facebook chess during office downtime.
Guilty, but released on account of good scenery.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
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