Thursday 12 November 2020

Disruption: "Queen of Hearts"

Queen of Hearts finds our Danish friends doing their utmost to resuscitate if not the erotic thriller then certainly the adult drama. Co-writer/director May el-Toukhi takes so long and such care to establish her primary location as an ideal home that we await the wrecking ball being put through the middle of it; only gradually is it revealed that the cause of this upheaval is libidinal. The home in question is the pricey, glassy country retreat of lawyer Anne (Trine Dyrholm) and infectious diseases specialist Peter (Magnus Krepper), a modernist suntrap they share with their two practically identical daughters. It's the very image of balance and symmetry, so it inevitably gets thrown off-centre when Gustav (Gustav Lindh), Peter's delinquent son from a previous marriage, arrives from Sweden, trailing scattered clothes and resentment, and making an early impression by robbing the family of their silverware. This slouching brat makes a stark contrast with his upright, liberal keepers, forever keen to do the right thing, be that taking in an outcast with an eye to repairing any damage caused by prior paternal neglect, or - in Anne's case - coaching a nervy young woman through an upcoming rape trial. But what would follow, el-Toukhy wonders, if one of these goody-goodies suddenly did the wrong thing for a change? What would happen if, say, one night Anne slipped away from her ever so slightly stolid hubby and his ever so slightly dull dinner guests, got drunk, and made a move on Gustav? And what, then, if he responded? That'd be one way to shake up a staid domestic situation, right?

In asking these questions - in seeking to investigate the awkward nitty-gritty of human nature - Queen of Hearts reveals itself as another example of cinema humbly and usefully taking a note or two from its smaller-screen sibling. One influence here has to have been Showtime's The Affair, that tasteful, couples-friendly saga of midlife straying, from which el-Toukhy has imported the central conceit: aspirational folk in nice clothes they themselves seem to regard as straitjackets, to be thrown off at regular intervals. (A late shot of Peter and Anne undressing for bed with their backs turned to one another is as Affair-y as any cinema has yet got.) Beneath the film's cultivated veneer, though, there's a strain of that provocation all Danish films have exhibited ever since Lars von Trier stuffed The Idiots full of boobs and willies. There's a pricelessly funny moment after Anne sneaks off to a bar with Gustav and kisses him full on the lips; the lad all but staggers backward, seen rattled for the first time in the picture. (Here, el-Toukhy seems but a heartbeat away from insinuating that the best way to discipline an unruly stepchild would be to seduce them.) What's really funny is that, for a while, Anne's indiscretion unlocks something in a settled-to-stagnant relationship. The first time she rejoins hubby after screwing Gustav, they too end up in frantic copulation, perhaps in a bid to rebalance the books; soon, our once-overlooked heroine is getting attention from all sides, at all hours of the day. Her risk appears to have paid off. But it remains a risk. Just from a structural engineering POV, you fear there's only so much rhythmic banging of headboards this house-on-stilts will take before its foundations subside or collapse altogether. To quote from the work of Nancy Meyers (and this is the kind of home one might see in a Meyers movie, albeit liberated to go far beyond the boundaries of a PG-13 rating): something's gotta give.

All the performers are locked onto this tension from the off: there's a nice, jittery sense of values and certainties being eroded scene by scene. But Dyrholm, the Scandie Helen Mirren, is operating on another level. Front and centre throughout, she gives the role her body and soul; in so doing, she both elevates and complicates what might merely have been a sleazy or farcical hook-up. Somewhere in the background of this performance, there's a glimmer - just a glimpse, all the more fascinating for being so fleeting - that indicates Anne makes her move to assert some dominance over the one part of Peter's life that isn't hers. (Consider what she does for a living, and that seems... problematic.) More broadly, however, she's a character who's not cut out for sneaking or sleeping around: a committed, responsible professional, a good mother. She'll spend the film's second half struggling to reconcile the image she has of herself with the disgusted look on the face of the contemporary who catches her playing a rigorous game of tonsil hockey with a teenager. Here, maybe, you sense a finger starting to wag: it's possible another mother looking on might well have given up an envious "well, you go, girl". Yet this knottiest of screenplays knows how limiting responsibility is by its very nature, and that there will likely be committed professionals and good mothers in the audience who will have felt a similar urge, to let off steam or let down their hair, every once in a while. The ending may be just a touch too punitive to do complete justice to that forgiving line of thought, but generally Queen of Hearts pays us the compliment of portraying its characters as complex and complicated, and thereby recognising we humans are subject at sporadic intervals to all manner of fruitloop impulses. In this respect, it can be said to be a properly adult movie.

Queen of Hearts is now streaming via MUBI UK.

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