In arguably the most famous scene in all of Ingmar Bergman’s oeuvre, Max von Sydow plays chess against a personification of Death with his continued existence as the game’s wages. In Queen to Play, Sandrine Bonnaire pushes pawns against a far less literal embodiment of Death for stakes that only metaphorically constitute her life. As Hélène, hotel maid and matriarch of a petit bourgeois family in a tiny town on the French coast, learns the game from the surly, hermetic American widower Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline), she comes to define herself as an individualized person and not the mere wife and mother that the narrow-minded locals view her as being.
Yes, this is another cliché-ridden story of sports—or, in this case, games—as the way out of provincial hell. More specifically, it’s a tale of female empowerment as undergone by a woman who never knew she desired that empowerment, but in director Caroline Boattaro’s treatment, everything’s strictly according to the Lasker’s. Dependant on lame metaphors (the film’s English title alludes to the constantly reiterated truism that the queen is the most powerful piece on the board) and blunt cross-cutting for thematic effect, the film is saved from utter banality only by its lead performance and by the screenplay’s recognition of the necessity of a woman achieving her own emancipation without relying too heavily on sympathetic males.
Bonnaire perfects a controlled blank-faced stare that her character wears defensively, often breaking into a furtive smile as soon as she’s alone. Facing down her capricious mentor, the funereal Dr. Kröger (who everyone assumes, incorrectly, that she’s sleeping with), she parries his questions with a cool demeanor and a terse response. When he asks her if she believes the rumors about him causing his wife’s death, she simply responds “no,” resisting the urge to insist on her lack of suspicion. Being on guard against Kröger proves a wise idea, as in an odd bit of lesson-teaching, he betrays her in order to make the point that, ultimately, only she can help herself.
This idea extends as well to her husband, an occasionally brutish but not entirely unsympathetic man who doesn’t understand his wife’s need to play chess and offers her little support—at least until the film’s end. Still, in his defense, he’s hurt by the rumors that circulate in the gossipy small town about her alleged affair, the fact that she lies to him about sneaking off to play chess, and the very real possibility of layoffs at his job. Bottaro’s film is admirably class-conscious and understands the economic barriers to female self-empowerment, but by making Hélène such a natural adept at the game of chess, Queen to Play misrepresents the difficulties of women with no semi-marketable talents at freeing themselves from their own domestic grind.