Queen to Play seems so obvious in its metaphors and plotting that you come away stunned at the end to realize just how engaging and involving it is.
Written and directed by Caroline Bottaro from a novel by Bertina Henrichs, the film focuses on Helene (Sandrine Bonnaire), who lives on the island of Corsica, where she moved when she got married. Her husband (Francis Renaud) is a laborer who's feeling the pinch of the economic crunch ("The people who have money aren't hiring," he says - thus reducing the entire notion of trickle-down economics to a single sentence of irrefutable truth).
Helene, meanwhile, works two jobs as a cleaning lady, the first of which is at a local hotel. There, she observes a vacationing couple in an amorous moment - and it happens over a game of chess.
But it's not just the romance that sparks her - it's the chess itself. Which leads her to her second job, cleaning the house for a widowed American academic, Dr. Kroger (Kevin Kline). She notices a chessboard among his belongings, which inspires her to buy a computerized chess set for her husband's birthday gift, which he reacts to without enthusiasm.
But she's instantly hooked. She starts reading the manual, staying up late to play against the machine she's bought, developing her knowledge as she plays over and over. She convinces her American boss to play with her - and, eventually, spends all her supposed working time playing chess with him. Before long, she's beating him regularly, finding her mind peculiarly attuned to the strategies of the game.
Which angers her husband. He's jealous of the fact that she's getting home later and later from work, forcing him to cook for himself. He's also jealous of the intimacy she and the professor share, though their relationships is platonic (beyond their mutual affection for chess).
It leads her to stop working for Kroger - but then she realizes that she's solving the wrong problem, pursuing the wrong strategy. Instead, she returns to her weekly chess match/lesson - and then lets him talk her into entering a local chess tournament.
What gives the film its seductive power is the understated but deeply felt performance by Bonnaire, as a woman who discovers in midlife the thing that gives her a greater sense of her own ability than anything previously. Bonnaire portrays Helene as an uncomplaining wife, upbeat when she's expected to be, but bubbling under the surface with newly awakened sense of herself.
She has a wonderful foil in Kline, who feels her potential but can barely tease it out, even as he tries to get to know her without taking the relationship beyond friendship.
Queen to Play is quiet but affecting, a film that uses a well-worn metaphor to find new and profound feelings. It's the kind of film you'll need to seek out - but which rewards that effort.