At the start of Caroline Bottaro’s drama Queen To Play, Corsican maid Sandrine Bonnaire is cleaning a hotel room when she sees a glamorous-looking American woman (played by glamorous-looking American actress Jennifer Beals) wearing a slinky nightgown while playing chess on her balcony with her lover. The romance of the scene proves so powerful that Bonnaire can’t get it out of her head. So she tries to recreate it. She swipes the nightgown, and buys her working-class husband Francis Renaud an electronic chess set for his birthday. And when he shows no interest in either her seduction techniques or her game, she learns how to play on her own, then asks one of her other employers—misanthropic American doctor Kevin Kline—to help her hone her skills.
Bottaro adapted her screenplay from a novel by Bertina Henrichs, and though the premise is original, the trajectory of the plot feels pretty second-hand. Bonnaire doesn’t just learn chess tips from Kline; she learns to stop apologizing for herself all the time, and to say no to people. Naturally, this threatens her relationship with Renaud, who feels inadequate because he doesn’t understand either chess or his no-longer-compliant wife. It also interferes with Bonnaire’s job at the hotel, where she spends so much time thinking about chess that she lapses into a kind of daze. She briefly quits the game, but reclaims her passion in time to compete in a tournament, in an effort to earn the respect of everyone who doubted or overlooked her over the years.
That arc’s awfully pat, and borders on the irreparably corny whenever the characters knit their brows or rend their garments over whether Bonnaire’s getting above herself with all her chess-chat. But Bonnaire plays it subtly, gradually realizing that being indispensable to others gives her some leverage in the game of life. (“Remember,” Kline advises, “The threat is always stronger than the execution.”) And Bottaro—a first-time feature director—smartly holds on Bonnaire as she starts seeing the patterns and pieces in her everyday life. Queen To Play has a winning heroine, who fantasizes about being special and then works hard to make it happen. Too bad the rest of the movie is so common.