Queen of Hearts ★★★

Often, female characters in film are not afforded much moral complexity. Even as modern cinema itself gets more progressive, women still tend to get characterized into broad stereotypes, often defined by their relationship to male characters: mother, sister, wife, mistress, femme fatale, etc. At first glance, Anne (Trine Dyrholm) seems to be just such a character in Queen of Hearts. She is a lawyer dedicated to protecting children and young adults and a loving mother and wife. She is accepting of, if not completely open to, her husband’s choice to let Gustav (Gustav Lindh), his son and her stepson, stay at the house with the family.

Gustav quickly ingratiates himself with everyone in the family except for Anne. However, she falls into a torrid affair with the underage Gustav and puts her family, career, and future at great risk. The plot sounds like a bad Lifetime special or daytime soap opera. Indeed, if this film had been less well-shot or more heightened in its presentation, it very well could have been pulpy trash. But the film is grounded by a solid, well-considered performance by Trine Dyrholm. She comes off as a capable woman, yet there is a telling scene in which she considers her own naked body, beautiful in its own way and yet not the body of a younger woman.

That scene colors the rest of the movie because we see that same vulnerability, even when she is doing objectively wrong things. Perhaps it is this vulnerability that connects Anne and Gustav, a quality they both share. Lindh as Gustav is perfectly cast as a young man who has not quite shaken off the trappings of boyhood, physically or mentally. Her maturity and his youthfulness underlines the age difference between them, which is quite noticeable and disturbing. It is worth noting, however, that audiences are often asked to accept even greater age differences if the genders were switched. 

The scenes between Anne and Gustav are meant to underline their innate brokenness and intense need for a connection that can satisfy their carnal desires. Director May el-Toukhy often frames these two in intimate yet stark compositions that are meant to be as unromantic as possible. Their lovemaking is urgent and overcast with the threat of discovery, which drains their actions of any possibility of romance. Also, the luxurious, modern house in the middle of a beautiful, wooded part of Denmark where most of the film takes place is a crucial setting since it is a place of seclusion, one that can foster the illusion that any actions committed within such a place will have no effect beyond its confines.

Ultimately, Queen of Hearts does not excuse Anne’s behavior, since she is very much a perpetrator and enabler rather than a victim of her own foolish desires. Anne sincerely believes that she could have it all, even though Gustav starts to threaten the peace in her home – an act she had predicted when he first came to live with them. The greatest strength of Queen of Hearts is that it asks us to wrestle with why a woman who seems to have everything would throw away all security to follow her base desires, rather than making that judgment for us. It’s a question often asked of men in say, Crimes and Misdemeanors, and these films often give them the space to try to justify to themselves why they should cheat, if not convince the audience that they are right. Queen of Hearts does essentially the same thing, yet it also gives the right amount of time to let the protagonist endure the consequences of her actions, and how the aftermath reflects her status as a woman of a fragile privilege.

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