Two French-language films — one a comedy-drama, the other a documentary — share a couple of odd traits. They’re both eminently watchable, and neither manages to paint a clear picture of its protagonists, whether fictional or real-life.
You can think of “Queen to Play” as a sort of Gallic “Educating Rita,” with chessboards taking the place of books. Sandrine Bonnaire plays Hélène, a Frenchwoman who long ago left the mainland to marry Corsican native Ange (Francis Renaud) and raise a teenage daughter. She works as a chambermaid at a picturesque hotel, and also cleans house for a reclusive American expat named Kröger (Kevin Kline) at his even more picturesque chateau.
Captivated by the sight of a romantic couple (the female half played by Jennifer Beals, for no good reason) playing chess at the hotel, Hélène becomes interested in the game and buys her husband an electronic board — which he ignores, but which starts to keep her up into the early hours, practicing her moves. She gets tutored, grudgingly at first and then with a nice frisson of erotic tension, by Kröger, a master player.
The movie throws a series of predictable obstacles into its heroine’s path. People gossip about her and Kröger. Ange throws a couple of tantrums about his wife’s new infatuation with a game he sees as alien to their working-class lives. Caroline Bottaro, making her feature directing debut, serves this up bluntly. You may find yourself wishing that a prankish, smarter director (say, the late Luis Buñuel or Pedro Almodóvar) could have had his way with the material. One problem with the movie is that Bonnaire, with her strong bones and piercing eyes, hardly seems an unlikely person to savvy to chess. She innately comes across as elegant and smart; it’s hard to buy her as the blue-collar, lower-income domestique she’s supposed to be playing. That is as much compliment as complaint.
Still, the Corsican scenery is striking, and the movie is perfectly pleasant in its lightweight way. So is “L’Amour Fou,” which asks the question: What do you do after you bank nearly $500 million from selling your dead lover’s art collection? Answer: Make a flattering film portrait of yourself!
That sounds harsh, but it’s a hard idea to shake at the end of first-time director Pierre Thoretton’s documentary about the late fashion designer Yves St. Laurent and his surviving partner Pierre Bergé. Though the couple lived and worked together from the late 1950s until St. Laurent’s death in 2008, the movie is weirdly unenlightening about the man who took over Christian Dior’s house of couture before striking out under his own label. It also doesn’t tell us much about the men’s relationship, personally or professionally. Instead, it’s a sort of interior travelogue, documenting the couple’s lavish homes, and the priceless objets and paintings — by Géricault, Picasso, Braque, Goya — that Bergé decided to auction off.
After wondering whether the movie will ever find a focus and reveal something truly interesting about the “pathologically shy” St. Laurent, who could look startlingly like oddball actor Crispin Glover, you might lose your patience (I sure did) when the climax occurs among the idle rich and their anxious bidders at the auction house. In the end, St. Laurent’s and Bergé’s relationship is treated as little more than a great financial investment.
Throughout the movie, Bergé delivers vague anecdotes about his life with Yves but never offers much detail about specifics — such as the designer’s hard-partying ways in the 1970s and his turnaround with rehab in 1990. Instead, he delivers information about himself, which maybe some viewers will give un bleep about. For instance, he claims that he doesn’t believe in the existence of a soul. That makes sense. This movie lacks one.
“Queen to Play.” With Sandrine Bonnaire, Kevin Kline. Directed by Caroline Bottaro. In French with subtitles. 96 minutes. Unrated. At Atlanta’s Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
“L’Amour Fou.” A documentary directed by Pierre Thoretton. In French with subtitles. 103 minutes. Unrated. At Atlanta’s Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.