Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Queen to Play

I arrived at this movie mainly as a fan of Kevin Kline, and I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to see that, despite the way the U.S. posters were put together. It is, after all, a French movie, and Kline, after all, is playing the role Jean Reno or Stellan Skarsgard would play in an American film, which is seldom the lead. Still, you seldom see people doing that sort of thing in reverse; the Hollywood money is so good that a person who would be a lead in France will often take supporting roles in the US, and it seems odd to see someone going in the other direction, taking what is likely a cut in both prestige and pay.

But, then, it's not like Kline has been a lead in a while. This actually surprises me; in my head he's still the guy in his forties carrying movies like Dave and In & Out, but that last one was almost fifteen years ago, and though he doesn't really look like he's aged out of those roles, he hasn't had a lead since 2007's Trade (likely not as good as I thought at the time, and which didn't get picked up by a major studio). In the meantime, his calendar age caught up with him on screen something fierce; he now seems to be specializing in supporting roles where it seems to be fifty/fifty that he dies in order to teach the younger main character about the fleetingness and preciousness of life. Truth be told, I can't recall if one of his characters has actually died yet, but, man, the threat is sure alive.

It's a shame, really. He's still a vital, funny guy, and I hope doing another comedy with Lawrence Kasdan (set for release next year) gets him back center stage where he belongs.

Not that I'm complaining about the guy I came to see being in a secondary part, becuase I found myself really loving Sandrine Bonnaire. Apparently I had seen her before, in Intimate Strangers, but I didn't realize that at the time; she was a vaguely familiar name but not face. Quite a lovely face, though, especially once she smiles. Expressive, too, which is a good thing when much of the movie is going to be her playing chess.

The movie doesn't get too much into the mechanics of the game, which is a little disappointing but makes it accessible. Not that I am the guy to look down his nose at straightforward descriptions of the game. My chess-playing abilities are pretty reflective of me as a person - I am reasonably intelligent and retain information well enough to know the rules and how the pieces move, but stink at long-term planning. Still, it would have been nice to hear something more specific than how chess is about knowing the time and place to break the rules (like life, you know), just because I like specifics and would kind of like to learn something so that I could be better at chess, on the off-chance I ever find myself playing the game with someone who doesn't stink at it as much as I do.

Anyway, sorry for the late review, as tomorrow (Thursday) appears to be the Queen to Play's last day in town. It's certainly not a bad couple of hours.

Joueuse (Queen to Play)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 May 2011 in Landmark Kendall Square #5 (first-run)

There should be more chess movies, although there are probably more than I think because I just haven't gotten around to seeing many (I remember Siskel & Ebert raving about Fresh, but I missed it). It's a game where everyone knows the rules but can gain some insight over the course of the film. And with it such a game of the mind, you can see something special from close-ups of faces as expressive as those of Sandrine Bonnaire and Kevin Kline.

When the movie starts, Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire) has never played chess; she's a maid at a small Corsica hotel. Something about a pair of American guests playing the game catches her eye, though, and she gets her husband Ange (Francis Renaud) an electronic chess game as a birthday present, something they can play together or practice individually. He's not interested, but she suddenly sees reminders of the game everywhere. She soon finds herself unable to go much further with the cheap computer, but it turns out that the American expatriate whose house she cleans for extra money, Dr. Kroger (Kevin Kline), plays a little himself, though he has to be cajoled into teaching Hélène.

Director Caroline Bottaro (who also wrote the screenplay, adapting a novel by Bertina Henrichs) is not doing anything tremendously complicated or unpredictable; from the opening where Hélène looks longingly at the American tourist couple to the pride that's on the line in her last on-screen game, the movie is cinematic comfort food for the most part. Even the obvious triangle with Hélène, Kroger, and Ange is played relatively low-key, as if Bottaro knows that the audience will roll their eyes at too much melodrama. It does get weird for a bit in there, but she rights the ship soon enough. And while most in the audience can see what she's going for with each minute, she doesn't feel the need to underline it. Yes, a scene is clearly about how Hélène's co-worker is giving up on something she loves as Hélène ponders doing the same, but there's no speech about it.

Full review at EFC.

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