Queen of Hearts | Review
The Sorrows of Milf: Dyrholm Puts the Extra in Extra-Marital as the Star of el-Toukhy’s Uncomfortable Drama
Danish director May el-Toukhy crafts a compelling melodrama out of a sordid scenario in her sophomore film, Queen of Hearts, which reunites her with Trine Dyrholm, who was a supporting player in el-Toukhy’s 2015 debut Long Story Short. Dyrholm is front and center this time around as a more-or-less contented wife and mother with a successful career who suddenly makes some reckless choices, the consequences of which threaten the stability of her home. While Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland provides us with the titular subtexts for Dyrholm’s undeniably selfish but understandably human drives and desires, el-Toukhy takes a masterful, clear-eyed approach with material more comparable to the likes of D.H. Lawrence’s Sons of Lovers than it does a plethora of other squeamish incest/statutory rape dramas which tend to lose sight of the human elements under the weight of taboo subject matters.
Anne (Dyrholm) is a successful Danish lawyer and lives in a beautiful secluded home with her physician husband Peter (Magnus Krepper) and twin preadolescent daughters. When Peter’s teenage son from another marriage, Gustav (Gustav Lindh) comes to stay with them, a battle of wills between father and son isn’t helped by Anne’s coldness towards the boy. Overhearing Gustav have sex with a young woman he brings over seems to jumpstart something dormant in Anne, however, and some reckless decision patterns at work seep into her homelife when she seduces Gustav. Soon, the young man can’t keep his hands off her and eventually Anne is forced to exert the privilege of her position to avoid disrupting her comfortable existence.
What’s perhaps most revolutionary about Queen of Hearts is how el-Toukhy refuses to castigate her heroine, a woman who knows she’s made a mistake but does what she has to do to salvage her family rather than, shall we say, do the right thing. It’s still a bit of a cinematic anomaly to see older women seducing underage men, much less those whose propinquity dictates certain dire remonstrance. But the days of Mrs. Robinson are long gone, and whatever the gender, the age differential invariably leads to discussions about how in an era of political correctness post Me Too there’s a need for us to see sexual predators punished. But what happens when it’s a woman and she gets away with it? In his reproach of the Bebe Neuwirth character in Gary Winick’s 2000 comedy Tadpole, Roger Ebert dismisses her cougar tendencies in seducing a hyperarticulate fifteen-year-old by proposing her audacity wasn’t realistic, instead suggesting she would be “far from teasing the new sexual initiate with exposure, [and] would have been terrified of arrest, conviction and a jail sentence for statutory rape.” In similar fashion, Dyrholm not only escapes punishment for her transgressions, but in actively doing so, causes irreparable damage and misery for the peripheral players in her wake. Queen of Hearts, perhaps, also reconfigures the tragedy of someone like a Gloria Graham through a feminine lens.
el-Toukhy provides several significant elements prior to Anne’s jumping off the deep end, part of which is understood in her line of work, a lawyer who fails at achieving justice for a female client, a sexual assault victim whose aggressor gushes aggressively when the charges against him are dropped. Her reaction to his gloat is the first real instance where she steps out of line. Prior to this, her occupation is introduced as problem by her husband, who’s upset clients meet at their secluded home as she cannot properly be available as a mother to their twin girls—and there it is, the prescribed role of women cannot be compromised by other various facets of her personality at any given time, and she is swiftly reminded of the discomfort it causes when she does. So yes, it would seem plausible Anne was well-aware of statutory rape charges and the potential dissolution of her marriage. In her most candid moment, a taped interview courtesy of Gustav, she cites her greatest fear of everything disappearing, while hinting ever so lightly at an enmeshed relationship with her father which might also explain her current behavior. “Sometimes what must happen and what must not happen are the same thing,” she states cryptically. And, of course, their brief idyll soon after explodes, and el-Toukhy doesn’t allow us down a path of redemption for her protagonist.
Jon Ekstrand’s mystical, moody score enhances the film’s sense of the forbidden, and Jasper J. Spanning’s cinematography longingly assists us in pondering a potential homage to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening with Dyrholm submerging herself in a pond. In one brief electric moment, Dyrholm takes us into a flight of psychological fancy as she dances to “Tainted Love” while entertaining guests at their home—it’s a brief but potently suggestive aside on the powerful temptation to break free from comfort and banality.
Dyrholm, who remains one of Denmark’s most accomplished contemporary performers, adds another signature performance to her filmography as Anne, a good person who, like everyone, has the capability of doing terrible things. Her ability to resume a semblance of normalcy is perhaps the film’s most realistic reflection of an uncomfortable transgression, while it’s how el-Toukhy plays with our expectations by building sympathy for Anne which makes Queen of Hearts a complex formulation of behaviors and desires which are anything but black and white.
Reviewed on January 26th at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival – World Cinema Dramatic Competition. 128 Minutes