After chambermaid Hélène (Sandrine Bonnaire) glimpses an American couple (Jennifer Beals and Dominic Gould) playing chess in the upscale Corsican resort where she works, she becomes obsessed with the game and what it represents to her. The couple's casually sexy interplay and wealth are in stark contrast to the hand-to-mouth existence of Hélène and her family (a construction-worker husband and surly teenage daughter). Writer/director Caroline Bottaro, who adapted the screenplay from the novel The Chess Player, has crafted a feminist tale that's part Pygmalion and part '70s women's film, with chess being both a tool for self-growth and a spark for Hélène's previously untapped intellectual prowess. She is helped on her path to self-fulfillment by the curmudgeonly Dr. Kröger (Kevin Kline), whose house she cleans for extra cash and who tutors her on the finer points of the game—and life. The plot sounds more programmatic than it actually plays out onscreen: Hélène's evolution is gingerly balanced by a class critique that's sympathetic to both prole women and men. The supporting cast is uniformly fine, but the film rests on the delicate shoulders of Bonnaire, who carries it with a soulful, magnetic presence.
Bonnaire at the board.
Opens at Metro, Fri., May 6. Not rated. 96 minutes.