It’s not easy living in a transactional world without losing hope. That seems to be one of the many truths that become evident to viewers of the 1991 film Queen of Diamonds. Newly restored by The Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation, the film is written, produced, directed, and shot by feminist auteur Nina Menkes. She has been in the spotlight most recently for her documentary Brainwashed: Sex, Camera, Power, premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Brainwashed examines the gendered and often misogynistic visual grammar of cinema using over 170 movie clips from the history of film. Traveling back to an earlier work by Menkes offers a fascinating look at how a female filmmaker can reframe or manipulate what has, over time, become the traditional visual language of film, in the service of more femme-centric storytelling.
Shot on location in Las Vegas, Queen of Diamonds centers on jaded blackjack dealer Firdaus (Nina Menkes’ sister, frequent collaborator and thespian muse Tinka Menkes) who sleepwalks through the banality of her days and nights in desolate urban and natural landscapes of faded glory. With no plot to speak of, Queen of Diamonds is a presentation of one woman’s bleak, joyless experience. Menkes uses ambient sound, sparse dialogue and long takes as she follows Firdaus in real time through each scene. All of this highlights the character’s alienation and repressed rage. More though, Menkes often keeps both Firdaus and all the other characters with which she interacts in static shots, occasionally cutting to show some segmented aspect of Firdaus, like her 4 inch, blood-red painted nails, shown against the blue florescence of nighttime or the stark overexposed sun-burnt Vegas daylight. We never learn much about her, other than she (mostly) doesn’t take any shit. She chooses to be caretaker of an sick elderly man living in the same low-rent apartment complex. Her husband has been missing for months, but she does little to find him. No more information about him or his absence is offered. At her job as blackjack dealer, she works by rote like a raven-haired robot, which we learn as observers seeing her from a distance, watching her going through the motions. In a 17-minute scene at the casino, Menkes uses ambient sounds that capture the capitalism, desperation and greed marking all gambling establishments.
There are subtle moments that speak to the micro-aggressions and daily harassments of a woman living her life alone. At one point, when Firdaus waits for a bus at night, a guy comes and asks if she’s ok. She says she has stomach cramps. First he proceeds to offer her a cigarette, then he sings “Since I Fell for You” to her, then asks, “You feel better now?” In a world where women are expected to smile on command, she’s certainly supposed to say she does. In the daylight outside, when Firdaus is by herself, a man comes up to her and says, “You seem to be alone. In fact I’m sure you are. What are you doing here?” She dares to take up space without adding to it for the pleasure of the men around her. She’s never willing to respond in ways the men that wander in and out of her experience want. The scene that follows is, appropriately, a palm tree burning to cinders.
The film ends with another question, adding to those about who Firdaus is, what she wants, and, assuming she knows, if she even cares if she gets it anymore. 1991 was a time when even fewer female filmmakers were creating, and most of those deemed successful were getting there by origami-ing themselves into copies of male directors to get work. Along with other fearless visionary auteurs of the 90s like Julie Dash and Deepa Mehta, Nina Menkes offered a new and honest expression of women onscreen. I hate watching movies like this one, but I can’t stop myself, and I always appreciate them for what they are and what they do. We don’t always have to be comfortable or love the movie-watching experience, in fact, Menkes would probably argue we can’t move forward without discomfort. For film lovers looking to follow the threads of how feminism and the female experience is making its way slowly into the mainstream, Queen of Diamonds is a must-see.
4 1/2 out of 5 stars