Queen of Hearts. Vertigo, vertigo

17 December, 2020

We’re in a pine forest, and the frame is starting to spin. The trees are now upside-down, and a foreboding melody is heard in the background. This is how Queen of Hearts / Dronningen, Danish-Egyptian filmmaker May el-Toukhy’s film, begins. A woman, played by Trine Dyrholm, then appears within the frame, as she is walking a dog through the forest. Starting with this very first shot, which seems to shout what does the author mean by this? at its audience, we’re placed within the woman’s personal space. The vertigo one feels after watching this scene – it is suggested with little subtlety – is, in fact, her vertigo. Additionally, the fact that the woman is followed from behind and at a certain distance imposes onto the spectator a voyeuristic manner of relating to the film’s events, one which will be kept and consolidated throughout the feature.

This first shot plants Queen of Hearts straight into that particular category of festival films that could very well be designed by a cinephilic artificial intelligence tasked with creating a Nordic movie. From the cold light that bathes the impressive natural landscape to the menacing string orchestra in the background, all the way to the safe, surgical distance which the camera keeps from the character, Queen of Hearts already ticks off some of the main clichés that are associated with post-Dogme Nordic cinema. And that’s just the very first shot. Following this scene, the woman exits the forest and passes by two twin girls who are playing in front of a house. The woman asks them about their father, and then enters the house. Inside, the man tells her that he was called up by the Stockholm police department and that he must travel to the city. The woman insists on joining him, but the man turns her down and leaves. Alone, the woman gazes for a long time out the window, where, from her subjective angle, we see yet another tree onto which the camera moves its focus, and then the title card appears.

After this prologue, we are gradually introduced to the woman’s life. Anne has an enviable life – her marriage to Peter, played by Magnus Krepper, is very solid, despite Peter’s frequent absence from his family life; the two are united by the love they feel for their children and by the importance that they place on their careers. Peter is a medic, and Anne is a lawyer specialized in cases involving sexual abuse. On top of this, she and Peter raise their twin girls and live their family life in a gorgeous house set at the edge of a forest. This balance however proves to be extremely fragile when Peter’s teenage son from a previous marriage temporarily moves in with them. The boy, played by Gustav Lindh, and also named Gustav, is espousing a sort of anxious-avoidant attachment style, as he is frustrated and deeply affected by his father’s perceived abandonment. As such, in the beginning, the interactions between Gustav and Anne’s family are tense and complicated.

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Copyright Rolf Konow

The change in tone arrives late one night when Anne is turned on by the sounds that she hears from upstairs, where Gustav is having sex with a girl that he has brought into the house. For what it is, which is essentially a drama with impressionistic accents, Queen of Hearts doesn’t allow its spectators much real access to its protagonist’s inner mechanisms. Of course, it slowly becomes clear that beneath this apparently perfect equilibrium, Anne is feeling completely suffocated – by her status as a mother, a wife, and a lawyer. But the film contents itself with simply ticking off those few mandatory and ultimately predictable scenes to characterize Anne, like the shot in which she stares for a long time at her half-naked body in the mirror, questioning her attractiveness, or the moments in which she tries to initiate sex with an uninterested Peter, or even has sex with an uninteresting Peter. An especially creaky scene is that in which Anne, drunk at a get together with her friends, blasts Tainted Love (again, not subtle at all) at max volume and starts dancing by herself.

The only such scene that manages to be truly touching is the one in which Anne lets Gustav tattoo her skin; and that is due to the performances of the two protagonists, who raise the level of an otherwise unconvincingly-scripted scene all by themselves. One of the film’s undisputable merits is its casting: the two lead actors are perfectly-chosen by the director, and the real chemistry that binds them makes one capable of forgiving many of the film’s faults. More so, both actors seem to truly believe in their roles (maybe even more than the audience does) and are willing to go as far as they need to for them. Just as they do in the characters’ first sex scene, in which all of Anne’s repressed sexual tension begins overflowing, and she goes to Gustav’s room. As explicit and lacking in embellishments as this sex scene is, shot almost in real-time by el-Toukhy, the following scenes starring the two of them are incredibly stylized and ornamental. And as uncomfortable as Anne’s sex scene with teenage Gustav is, the scenes that truly leave a bitter taste behind are precisely these stylized scenes, even though they are much less explicit.

One could argue that Queen of Hearts, after all, follows Anne’s subjective angle. For her, Gustav truly is embellished and truly shines in the sunlight; some of the moments shared by Anne and the boy truly take place in slow-motion for her. But there’s something fishy in the aesthetic which, at times, brings to mind perfume commercials rather than cinema, and which are not limited to reducing Gustav to Gustav-the-object-of-desire. Even the interiors within which the vast majority of the plot unfurls, with their open spaces, expensive furniture, and tasteful objects, are shot in an almost pornographic manner – if not actual porn, then a bourgeois IKEA-porn of sorts. The result of this aesthetic isn’t a heightening of the viewer’s degree of empathy towards Anne (which one might think would be desired in a film broaching a topic such as this), but quite the opposite, an even greater distancing and alienation of said viewer. This imposed distance between Anne and the viewer is, on the one hand, more comfortable and easy to process, but on the other, it doesn’t leave enough space for a more complex way of relating to the two characters.

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Copyright Rolf Konow

As such, the film slowly transforms into a morality play – the irony of the fact that Anne, who works on sexual abuse cases, becomes an abuser herself, using her know-how on abuse to cover her acts, is quite crass and is a contributing factor to the sensation of falseness which the film exudes at times. That being said, the fact that the film is attempting to turn around certain gender role expectations, through the simple reality that its protagonist is an abuser pertaining to the female gender, is laudable. Still, what is completely lacking in the film, and could have truly found its place here, is the satirical tone typical of Danish cinema; el-Toukhy either doesn’t perceive or is wholly uninterested in the fact that her protagonist is a rich woman, who seems to have her own private forest and whose main problems seem to revolve around 1. how to have sex with her stepson and 2. how to keep the fact that she is having sex with her stepson a secret.

The lion’s share of the film’s tension is caused by the wait for the moment in which Anne and Gustav’s secret will rise to the surface, and el-Toukhy knows how to steadily build up the simmering tension until it reaches its boiling point. More so, the manner in which the director solves the unlikely couple’s situation in the end is an ingenious reversal of the audience’s expectations. As such, mostly due to the excellent performance of Trine Dyrholm, the ending is an unexpected and striking moment of grace. And if Anne’s fault lies in her abusing her position of authority over her stepson, the film’s fault lies in the fact that, despite the moments of grace that are peppered throughout, it doesn’t manage to fully involve the audience in the dramas, motivations, and impulses of its characters. For a film whose main purpose fully depends on this, its fault is nothing short of a capital offense.

Queen of Hearts is available on TIFF Unlimited.

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Codrin Vasile Codrin Vasile
He studied directing at UNATC, where he wrote articles for Film Menu. He also wrote his degree paper on D.A. Pennebaker’s early filmography. He is interested in analog photography and video art. He hopes for a Criterion release of Shrek 2. He makes movies.