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First Look Review - QUEEN OF HEARTS

queen of hearts review
A woman embarks on a sexual relationship with her stepson.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: May el-Toukhy

Starring: Trine Dyrholm, Gustav Lindh, Magnus Krepper

queen of hearts poster



The opening of Queen of Hearts, May el-Toukhy’s (working in collaboration with screenwriter Maren Louise KΓ€ehne) sensual melodrama, locates itself within the clean malevolence of Nordic-noir genre codes: wintery loci, polished bourgeois interiors and a glass harp score. The spectacular aspiration of middle-class Denmark - the big house (swoon: not since the apartment in Rope have I seen a cinematic domicile where I have more wanted to actually go and live), the lovely family (twin girls about eight - aww!) and the well paid, rewarding job (the sort of solicitor who can pick and choose their cases on a moral basis) - is tempered by the resplendent, icy iconography.  "How lucky I am," Anne (Trine Dyrholm) pointedly states. She is in her late forties, the titular Queen of Hearts who has every reason to luxuriate in her realm of taste and propriety. However, the Lewis Carroll references indicated by the film’s title, and which continue to proceed obliquely throughout the film, suggest a world of heady adventure and danger down the deep rabbit holes within the picturesque woods surrounding the cosy family home….

queen of hearts review

The propensity for self-destruction, the utterly selfish urges which tempt us into sabotaging our own lives remain fascinating. Anne is a woman who would seem to have it all, but of course it isn’t enough: it’s never enough, not for any of us. There’s always something more to want. And so, when Gustav (Gustav Lindh), the pikey son of her hunky fella from a previous relationship, comes to stay with the family, something begins to stir deep within Anne.

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Watching Queen of Hearts, I was struck by how rare it is within cinema to have such candid explorations of female desire. The camera barely leaves our anti-hero, and takes time to establish her boredom, her vulnerabilities and her sexuality as she begins to take notice of Gustav, the frame orbiting the intoxicating gravity of her performance. Dyrholm’s portrayal of Anne is probably my favourite performance of the year, and the synergy between director and performer is one of those special, alchemic relationships which produce a kind of cinema magic (the two worked together on 2015’s Long Story Short). There is a scene where Anne appraises her naked body in a full length mirror, imagining it through the youthful eyes of Gustav (whom she has mortifyingly just heard having it off with a PYT upstairs), pulling at her stomach and attempting to catch flattering light, which is so astonishingly intimate you’re ashamed to watch.

queen of hearts review

Call it midlife crisis, put it down to ennui, or factor in the animal attraction (el-Touky is far too sophisticated a filmmaker to pin the affair down to a single, excusable reason), but Anne ends up seducing her stepson - yikes! The frozen climes of the film’s opening thaw to sun dappled springtime as the two embark on an urgent affair. The sex is refreshingly frank, and deeply sensual; it’s the sound of breathing, the halting nervous breaths through the nose, the little gasps, which give these sort of scenes successful erotic authenticity. And moreover, even though on a societal level the relationship is wrong, the film ensures that we see the genuine delight both parties take in each other’s company and bodies. It isn’t hard to see where Gustav is coming from; Dyrholm is extraordinarily beautiful and stylish, with a fathomless intelligence that the girls he normally knocks about with cannot compete with. And for her part, perhaps Anne is attracted by Gustav’s youth, his lack of complication, his perceived freedom.

queen of hearts review

The problem with youth, the price we pay for it, is, of course, immaturity, and Gustav, rebounding from the abandonment of his mother and emotionally estranged from his dad, inevitably and tragically falls in love with Anne. The delicious suspense in the film’s final act sees Anne attempting to cover up her indiscretions, the camera lurking guiltily (because we’ve been encouraged into shameful complicity, too) as she lies, manipulates and threatens. As the full heartbreak dawns, the coldness of the film’s epilogue returns with unbearable frigidity, and Anne’s guilt becomes another terrible factor within her everyday horror of compromise.

Astounding.

Queen of Hearts is in US cinemas November 1st. A UK/ROI release has yet to be announced.




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