Queen to Play
Kevin Kline's talent often makes acting look easy, and this time, just to show off, he does it in French. I'll leave it to Francophones to rate his pronunciation, but his performance is marvelous. He plays Dr. Kr�ger, a gruff old academic isolated in his stately hillside home, his scraggly gray mane and beard suggesting a wounded beast. This lonely, angry man's most regular human contact is with his cleaning lady, Hélène, a wilting beauty played with infinite sadness by Sandrine Bonnaire.
She dutifully goes about her work and life ignored or dismissed by nearly everyone: her boss, her clients and her family, including her blue-collar husband (Francis Renaud), who all expect varying degrees of service. She has no idea she should ask for more from life, until she glimpses a glamorous American tourist couple engaging in an intense and flirty game of chess (just imagine it, OK?) on their hotel balcony. She briefly locks eyes with the ever-gorgeous Jennifer Beals, and sees a whole world of opportunities she could never dream of.
Hélène buys an electronic chess set for her confused husband, then begins obsessively playing it herself, diving deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the black-and-white grid. Suddenly, like a woman born anew, she tells Kr�ger she'll only clean his house and endure his snippy little insults if he teaches her chess. He agrees, and the quasi-romance and spiritual awakening that follows is the stuff that matinee dreams are made of, even if you feel you've seen this movie before.
Truthfully there's absolutely nothing new in Caroline Bottaro and Caroline Maly's screenplay, though it does put a gently feminist spin on the old "master learns more from his apprentice" routine — straight out of My Fair Lady.
It's Hélène's indomitable desire to define herself outside of any other relationship in her life that gives the film heart, and Bonnaire's fascinating, graceful performance gives it soul. Kline's hammier instincts are blunted by working in a foreign tongue, and, try as he might, he can never really overpower her, because as the film clumsily points out "The queen is the strongest player in the game."
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 22-23, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, April 24. It also shows at 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, April 29-30, and at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 1.