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Queen to Play (DVD Review)

15 Aug, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 8/16/11
Box Office $0.5 million
$29.95 DVD
Not rated.
In French with English subtitles.
Stars Sandrine Bonnaire, Kevin Kline, Francis Renaud.

As with everything else she’s made since her resonant early ’80s breakthroughs with A Nos Amour and Vagabond, the latest Sandrine Bonnaire starrer to reach these shores could just as well go by an alternate title: Dimples That Kill. Though by now, those industrial-strength indentations are no longer in service of wayward teenagers on self-destructive paths but of mature women of understated elegance.

In this case, Bonnaire, now approaching her mid-40s in real life, plays a married, attractive maid who changes bed sheets in a hotel (stay away from Dominique Strauss-Kahn, OK)? Living in Corsica, her “Helene” character still regards her husband (Francis Renaud) as attractive, but the family’s blue-collar status alienates the snobbish teenaged daughter they’ve raised, creating some household tension. What’s more, Helene is more intellectually curious than her mate and seems to sense that some fundamental zest is missing from the union on both mental and physical planes. When a hotel customer played by Jennifer Beals (another actress aging nicely) leaves a filmy negligee in the room upon checking out, Helene keeps it for herself and starts wearing it to bed.

But she’s faithful by nature, and this easy-to-take story ends up turning on chess — specifically, Helene’s afternoon tutelage by widowed doctor/employer (Kevin Kline) with whom she starts to play. This is a bearded Kline speaking French and looking, if not exactly rumpled, getting there. Their contests (which begin to affect her work performance and punctuality) start local tongues to wagging, to which Helene’s husband is not oblivious. I’m not a chess player myself (it’s an easy game to give up at 15 when your 8-year-old sister is regularly swamping you), but writer-director Caroline Bottaro makes it easy enough to get the gist. But it goes without saying that any viewer who’s consumed by the game will probably be even more intrigued — and, truth is, it’s never that easy to guess which people you know in life who have rooks and bishops in their blood. I’ve never gotten over the idea that the perhaps the biggest chess fancier in all of Hollywood was John Wayne.

The Kline character, who plays it close to the vest, has a substantial library and lends Helene a copy of Jack London’s Martin Eden — the best novel I’ve ever read about the writer’s angst and probably one of my 10 favorites ever. It’s about a seaman by trade who causes himself a lot of heartache by eventually (too eventually) succeeding on lofty ambitions designed to propel him to a higher social plateau — which means this may or may not be the book anyone should be laying on a novice who’s using her newfound skills to enter a local chess competition with no place for mediocrities. The doc isn’t the warmest and fuzziest guy in town — or maybe he’s just into tough love. But eventually Helene comes to command respect — from him and from everyone else.

Though Kline has always been a malleable actor, it’s worth taking five minutes with his filmography to note just how extensively he’s been able to mine a fairly mild screen person into all kinds of characterizations, even outlandish ones: The Pirates of Penzance, Sophie’s Choice, the Oscar-winning performance in A Fish Called Wanda, Dave, Silverado, Soapdish, The Ice Storm, Life As a House and (just this year) The Conspirator are just some of the salvos. This is Bonnaire’s movie, but someone had to have the inspiration to think even think that Kline might fit nicely into this role. Given that this is Bottaro’s first feature, she either caught a break or she has killer instincts for a little movie with killer dimples.

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