Sandrine Bonnaire’s performance in Queen to Play is incredible. As Héléne, Bonnaire fully embodies the yearning and regret of a stifled cleaning lady, eking out an altogether boring existence on the impoverished and culturally uninspiring modern Corsica. The character spends her days cleaning the very nice apartments and hotel rooms of international guests, and her nights attempting conversation with her boorish manual laborer husband, a man who’s seemingly devoid of libido and only interested in playing backgammon with his friends from work. The film’s story of Hélène’s fulfillment through learning to play and finally becoming adept at the game of chess through her relationship with a reclusive former academic (Kevin Kline) is a bit heavy-handed, and not altogether inspiring, but the way in which Ms. Bonnaire plays this part is a thing of pure beauty.
As far as tropes in Western drama goes, the housemaid has got to be one of the most germane to social commentary and moralizing about class structure/struggles. For this reason, the housemaid is also usually the most ham-fisted character you’ll encounter in any given production with an eye keenly affixed upon social justice. Countless well-meaning social commentaries have featured the housemaid as the perfect symbol of everything that’s wrong with a consumerist society. Of course, that’s pretty much all she’s featured as, rendering her character a condemning cardboard cutout of oppression, but a cardboard cutout nontheless. What’s worse is the odd film that attempts to show us the true depth and emotional range of the housemaid, to accurately describe her unique hopes and fears, and ends up being Maid in Manhattan. Needless to say, I think the it’s a particularly dangerous character to try and pull off without falling into one or the other of those two categories.
Interestingly enough, Bonnaire, though virtually unknown in the States, has played a housemaid more often than not in the films she’s made, most notably in Claude Chabrol’s 1995 La Cérémonie. One wonders if she’s being typecast or if she truly enjoys playing the help, but it’s hard to argue that she hasn’t become astoundingly good at it. What sets Ms. Bonnaire apart is her uncanny knack of revealing a wealth of information about her character without saying much of anything. She isn’t given any eloquent and devastating monologues about the way she’s treated or the inherent injustice of the service industry. Her character doesn’t really need them, because she implies everything we’re supposed to know through, you know, acting.
Hélène develops a fascination with the game of chess after seeing Jennifer Beals and her totally cool-dad-looking partner play chess while drinking champagne on a sunny balcony overlooking the sea. It’s hard to adequately describe just how perfectly cheesy a bit of Carrie Bradshaw Level class-porn this scene is, and in the hands of a less capable actress, the crassness of the scene would probably ruin our ability to take Hélène’s character seriously afterwards. But we can believe in and actually care about her fascination with chess, because she makes apparent how thoroughly internalized this interest of hers is that we understand it has nothing at all to do with social structure or superficial class envy, and everything to do with that universal human capacity for getting all up into logic puzzles.
The mastery of Bonnaire’s performance makes it all the more disheartening to watch Kline appear completely unsure of himself in this film, wavering between Hopkinsian seriousness and Wilkinsonesque eccentricity. Kline’s cookie-cutter complicated and crestfallen Dr. Kröger felt somewhat unimportant/tacked-on when reconciled alongside Bonnaire’s Hélène. As one of Hélène’s clients, Dr. Kröger all but ignores her until he finds her fiddling around with his exquisite chess set. Naturally, the two end up learning a lot about chess and themselves or whatever along the way. I don’t speak French, so I’m not sure if his accent was up to snuff or not, but regardless of dialect, he phones this one in. The relationship that develops between the two of them is carried almost exclusively by Bonnaire’s interpretation of her character, and Kline’s basically along for the ride. He my have paid his dues, but his performance here is virtually lifeless.
There really isn’t much about Queen to Play that sets it apart from a Lifetime Moment of Truth Movie™, save for Bonnaire’s aforementioned exemplary acting chops. This is one of many films that begs the question as to whether a stellar performance justifies an otherwise unremarkable cinematic voyage. Personally, I think this one does. Coupling Bonnnaire’s lovingly rendered characterization of Hélène with some truly gorgeous exteriors, Queen to Play is a rewarding though superfluous experience for those predisposed to the enjoyment of subtle and complex performances.