Queen of Hearts (Dronningen, Denmark-Sweden 2019)

Peter, Anne and Gustav

Queen of Hearts is currently streaming on MUBI in the UK, but is also available on Sky and Apple TV/iTunes. It appears to have been released by Thunderbird in the UK in February of this year so presumably it got lost somehow during the first UK lockdown? The BFI’s digital Sight & Sound archive has a very iffy search engine and I couldn’t find an entry for Queen of Hearts. This is very odd since the film won many festival prizes around the world and has received very good reviews. If you get the chance to see it, do take the plunge. It’s a compelling watch.

This film is hard to analyse in detail while avoiding major spoilers, although I can see an argument that spoilers don’t really matter since the power of the film is in the performance of the central player and the presentation of the fictional world. Danish cinema is one of my favourite institutions, mainly because it offers some terrific melodramas. MUBI promotes this film through an invocation of Douglas Sirk and the suspense of a Hitchcockian thriller. That’s a strong call but the film is up to it. I did wonder if it’s one of those films that provides plenty of talking points but then might begin to disintegrate under too much analysis. But however it might fare under deep analysis, it is certainly gripping the first time round.

Anne and Gustav with the girls by the river

I won’t spoil the narrative apart from mentioning the one central act I can’t avoid. The central character is Anne played by Trine Dyrholm. Most recently on UK screens in Thomas Vinterberg’s The Commune (2016), she had an early role in Vinterberg’s Festen (Denmark 1998), in my view the best of the ‘Dogme’ films and a film that has some tenuous links to Queen of Hearts. Anne is a partner in a law firm she started with an older man (perhaps her teacher or mentor?) and she specialises in cases concerning young people and abuse. She’s married to Peter (Magnus Krepper) a doctor of some kind. We learn little about Peter’s job – Anne is our prime focus. The couple have twin seven-year old girls and they live in a spacious modern house with access to a river and woods and no visible neighbours. We assume that the house is somewhere in the Greater Copenhagen area. They are clearly wealthy but there is a coolness between them. Their girls seem bright and are enjoying their lifestyle. The narrative begins after an unusual credits sequence which eventually reveals Anne walking with her dog in the woods. Quickly the narrative will produce two parallel ‘disruptive’ events. Peter is unhappy that Anne brings a client home – something she has promised not to do. He is about to go and collect Gustav, his 17 year-old son from his previous marriage. Gustav has been expelled from his school in Sweden where his mother lives.

Gustav doesn’t settle well in his new home at first, but gradually Anne brings him round and he becomes a friend to the two girls. But something about Gustav attracts Anne in a different way, especially when he brings a girlfriend back one night. Gradually Anne is drawn towards him in a dangerous way and as she becomes more distanced from Peter, desire for Gustav becomes too much – with all the tragic outcomes that you may imagine.

Tryst in the woods

Queen of Hearts is written by May el-Toukhy and Maren Louise Käehne. May el-Toukhy directs, supported by striking CinemaScope photography by Jasper Spanning and music by the Swedish film composer Jon Ekstrand. They all deserve congratulations. One review I’ve seen suggests that the presentation of the house and its grounds is reminiscent of the similar use of the house at the centre of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite (South Korea 2019). The two films are very different but the point about the house and grounds makes sense. This one is approached by descending a narrow walled driveway. Queen of Hearts is a family melodrama and much of the narrative is set in the house and its grounds, by the river and the woods. Both Anne and Peter are very busy but there are some family celebrations at the house. Anne’s closest friend is her sister Lina. The photography and score convey an atmosphere of encroaching danger, much of it focused on images of the woods and one specific tree as seen from the house. As well as the score there are several instances of diegetic music in the film. Melodrama needs music, but I know some contemporary audiences struggle with heavy, symbolic choices. Queen of Hearts announces its intentions when in the middle of a drinks party on the terrace with Peter’s friends, Anne gets up and plays ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell rather loudly and dances around the table.

Intimacy in the house . . .

The BBFC gave Queen of Hearts an ’18’ Certificate for the UK. In Denmark it is only a 15 but Danish cinema has a long history of tolerance for sexual display. In the US the film is ‘Not Rated’. The sex scenes are carefully shot to deflect suggestions of pornography but they are much ‘stronger’ than is common in mainstream Anglo-American cinema. Trine Dyrholm is a fearless performer. I note that my review of The Commune I wrote “She gives her all” and that is similarly the case here. There are some strange comments in the reviews I’ve read (in one Anne is described as a woman at “a drab stage in her life – the transition from middle age to elderhood”). Anne is in her late 40s! From what I’ve read about the Danish ‘age of consent’ legal framework, a relationship between and adult and a 17 year-old would not be an offence were it not that Anne is Gustav’s step-mother. What makes it worse is Anne’s other position as a counsellor of young people in precisely this situation. The narrative does offer us a moment when Anne wonders whether she is a monster. The power of the film for me is that Anne can come across as a woman to be admired and also as a despicable human being. Discovering the second doesn’t invalidate the first, though it is shocking (and not because of her desire). At one point she admits that the best things that happen are also the the things that should never happen. The only thing that annoyed me in the film were the throwaway lines of dialogue that imply that Anne came from a poorer background and that something bad happened in her childhood. We do know that her father died when she was only 11, but I’m not sure about the inference that she was abused. My other thought is that the film, like other Danish melodramas, does seem to critique the coldness and sterility of upper middle-class life. This increases my feeling that Anne has herself been ‘fractured’ so that her humanity can be so easily and tragically taken away from her. Can I bear to watch the film again?

Here’s a trailer. It does reveal a little more about the events.

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