From Agnès Varda’s Kung Fu Master to Eva Dahr’s Burning Flowers, women directors exploring romantic relationships between grown women and boys is hardly new. While unarguably a part of this tradition, Danish filmmaker May el-Toukhy’s Queen of Hearts is a gut-wrenching and ethically confronting film that hinges on a woman lawyer called Anne whose job is to fight for the rights for abused children and young people. As we discover, this profession lies in uneasy proximity to her status as a sexual predator who has seduced her teenage stepson who moves in with Anne, her husband and their two young twin daughters.
Starring iconic Danish actor and musician Trine Dyrholm in a career defining performance, Anne is a deeply flawed protagonist. As revealed through a number of encounters between herself and her damaged, vulnerable clients, issues of age, abuse and power lies at the center of her day job, and el-Toukhy goes to some lengths to reveal the intimate and often intense connections she makes with these young survivors. Anne champions their whose legal and human rights, which makes her own transformation from abuse fighter to abuser even more confounding.
Rather than present Anne as a two-dimensional hypocritical villain, the internal thoughts and emotions that lead to her sexual relationship with the young Gustav (Gustav Lindh) are deliberately hidden from the audience. We see her in an often-strained relationship with her husband Peter (Magnus Krepper) and she is clearly unhappy; a get-together with friends memorably sees her socially and physically detach from the group of her supposed peers as she drifts of, lost in dancing as she swirls around her table of guests, swept away in the sensuality of Soft Cell’s classic 80s new wave pop classic “Tainted Love”.
Arriving to live with his father and his new family in Denmark after leaving his mother in Stockholm, Gustav is at first unimpressed with his new housing arrangements, but that rapidly changes as his relationship with Anne develops. Dyrholm and el-Toukhy play their cards close; it’s hard to know in the “Tainted Love” scene, for instance, if the song’s famous lyrics are foreshadowing a doomed relationship to come, or if Anne’s attraction to the teen have already taken root somewhere deep inside her already.
While never wholly being sympathetic to Anne, Queen of Hearts shrewdly treads a very fine line that refuses to spoon feed us morality; it is seemingly consciously ambivalent in how we choose to read the relationship as consensual or otherwise, despite her occupation and the significant age difference between the two, let alone their familial connection. The long-term effect of Anne’s decision to instigate a sexual relationship is where the film largely packs its brutalizing punch: just as she has excused her own behaviour as an abuser, the film makes it very easy for us to not question her choices. It is only when things begin to fall apart – when the relationship ends and when Gustav realizes that he has been the victim of sexual abuse – that we see both Anne and the relationship for what they really are. Queen of Hearts is as much about our own hypocrisy as it is Anne’s.
Featuring one particularly explicit scene of sexual intimacy, el-Toukhy does not shy away from the biological mechanics of what this kind of abuse can look like; importantly, it can look like consent and we can lazily interpret it that way, even though all the evidence is present to make this difficult to justify. Of course, Anne knows better for a whole range of reasons; her day job alone underscores that she should not just be familiar with the morality of her transgression, but with the fundamental legality of it. She knows the modus operandi of the child sexual abuser backwards – it’s her work to know it – and yet she somehow still deploys the whole text-book toolbox of abuser techniques, from gaslighting to blackmail to painting herself as the victim. She grooms him and buys him expensive gifts, and when he confronts her, she plays dumb: “did I abuse you?” she asks Gustav. “You’re the expert, you tell me”, he answers. “You of all people should know”.
With the title coming from Lewis Carroll’s book of Alice’s famous adventures in Wonderland, like the Queen of Hearts in that book Anne’s overly-performative status as powerful woman tasked with doling out justice is revealed to be corrupted to the point of meaninglessness, of madness. Director and co-writer el-Toukhy understands that as her central protagonist, Dyrholm’s performance is undeniably the rock upon which this difficult and ambitious project is based; her tiniest gestures and nuanced body language communicate volumes, and a lesser actor would make for a less engaging, complicated viewing experience.
Queen of Hearts is certainly not a comfortable watch, let alone a pleasant one. But it is a fearless, important film whose impact explodes primarily out of the core collaboration between its masterful director and her main actor. There is a fundamental violence at its heart that film tempts us to not see, luring us to not even consider casting a moral judgement upon Anne until uncrossable lines are already well and truly crossed. There is no heavy hand to encourage us to either to sympathize with her or condemn her; it is this ambivalence that makes the film so compelling and challanging in that it demands we examine our own complicity and the ease with which we let abuse slide before our eyes, not fully processing it until it’s often too late.