Director and writer May el-Toukhy’s sophomore feature couldn’t be anything other than Scandinavian. The language, setting and underage drinking aside, it features all the characteristics that has made Scandinavian cinema such a popular and distinctive international export. It has the style, tone (that el-Toukhy manages to maintain throughout) and a quiet pessimism towards human nature that is so particular to Nordic dramas. But to describe the film in terms of it just possessing the cliched trappings of all films from that specific area would be selling it short. It stands wholly, originally and firmly on it’s own two feat. Something that may be attributed to the perspective afforded to the film by a woman writer, director and two women producers.
The film follows Anne (Trine Dyrholm), a high-flying lawyer specialising in vulnerable young people, and her husband Peter (Magnus Krepper) who is an equally high-flying doctor with whom she shares twin daughters. From the beginning of the film, life in their beautiful, sun-drenched home in the Danish woods seems perfect. But simultaneously it is clear that it’s all vulnerable, and is almost waiting to implode. Their perfect life is like a glass balcony with one too many cracks, and then enters Gustav (Gustav Lindh) the disruptive, moody and rebellious teenage son of Peter. Anne originally attempts to be an ally and friend to Gustav but feelings quickly change and mutate into lust and a powerful desire.
The film is cold and distant from the characters and their actions. Although the spectator might be emotionally invested in the story, you are not emotionally invested in the characters. You either read them as morally ambiguous or outright evil. Which, seen as the main character is a sexual predator, is no surprise really.
Anne, in any other film would be positioned as either a good person capable of evil or an evil person masquerading as good, but the film doesn’t make it so morally clear cut. The film has an absence of any clearly defined protagonist or antagonist. The main character in this narrative is the one who commits the most evil acts but there are no clear roles and there is no hero. The final act of the film follows Anne doing anything she can to stop her family, and her life, from falling apart. She is doing anything to stop it all from “disappearing” (as she confesses is her greatest fear) rather than doing the right thing. And there are fleeting moments of sympathy with Gustav towards the end of the film but it’s not a close, connected sympathy. It is fleeting as we have no deep understanding or connection to Gustav, we are just as distant to him as we are to everyone else. El-Toukhy and writer Maren Louise Käehne cast neither judgement nor sympathy on their characters.
Therefore neither does the audience. The use of numerous long shots and one-takes encourage viewers to make their own mind up; there is no emotional signalling that guide you through these characters and their terrible actions. We watch scenes unfold from mirror reflections or through windows without dialogue, through doors and balconies and reflections. Even, and especially, intimate conversations that form major plot points are told from wide, long shots. The viewer is physically and emotionally distanced from the characters and action.
The film doesn’t allow us to get close to a character or get in their head and so we are left with more questions than answers by the end. Most scenes in the film end abruptly in what seems like half way through, creating a jarring and, again, distant feeling. We are not a part of Anne’s life and we are never allowed to get too close as to identify with her. We are watching in small, fragmented parts as her life unravels, in glimpses. We lean in just enough to understand what is happening, we stare in disbelief and shock, and then the blind is suddenly shut on us.
There is, however, fleeting moments of warmth that perfectly illustrate a growing physical attraction between Anne and Gustav. There is one particular moment, almost half way through the film, of sun-drenched and erotically-charged warmth that was so sudden and unexpected it was almost dizzying.
But those moments are an anomaly to a cold and distancing film about desires and secrets that transform and destroy. All buttressed by stand out performances by Dyrholm and Lindh and an anxious and urgent score that extends the sense of fragility.
Queen of Hearts is out on DVD and Digital now
by Madeleine Sinclair
Madeleine Sinclair is a film student at the University of Winchester currently working on a dissertation on women killers in giallo films. She’s a big horror fan (the tackier the better) and also loves sci-fi and fantasy. Right now, she thinks her favourite films are Pan’s Labyrinth, The Wicker Man and Deep Red but she is also very indecisive. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @madeleinia and Letterboxd here.