Queen of Hearts, Denmark’s Oscar submission that played at IFFI, is a cold take on incest and shattered lives

Baradwaj Rangan

Dec 05, 2019 15:01:46 IST

Read more of Baradwaj Rangan's column on World Cinema here.

Like Section 375, Queen of Hearts – which played at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), and is the Danish submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar – toys with a provocative question: What if a man is the victim? Anne (Trine Dyrholm) is the most unusual kind of sexual predator. She’s an attorney. She defends young girls who’ve been abused. She not only fights for them, she also urges them to fight for themselves – and for others, too. “You are not just doing it for yourself but for all the girls out there,” she tells a girl who admits she is scared of testifying. And yet, Anne ends up seducing her underage stepson, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), a little after he moves in with the family.

 Queen of Hearts, Denmark’s Oscar submission that played at IFFI, is a cold take on incest and shattered lives

Trine Dyrholm in Queen of Hearts.

Now, incest in the movies isn’t exactly new. (There are many shades of this “relationship”, but let’s just look at the ones between mothers/stepmothers and sons/stepsons.) In Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s La Luna (1979), the mother sleeps with the teenage son. Both filmmakers treat the sensational event as unsensational drama. They say incest is a natural progression of love. In Murmur of the Heart, after making love to her son, the mother says, “I don’t want you to be unhappy or ashamed or sorry. We’ll remember it as a very beautiful and solemn moment that will never happen again.”

And Bertolucci, in a Rolling Stone interview, explained his heroine thus: “And when [the mother] finds out that her son is a junkie, she begins to think of him in a new way, wondering what mistakes she’s made. Finally, she’s completely lost, and the only thing she can do is to give him heroin or masturbate him. And I discovered that in fact many nannies once used masturbation as a way of tranquilizing children.” I don’t want you to agree or disagree. I am just pointing out a tradition in cinema that goes back to Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943), a tradition of mother/son incest being depicted as “romantic” rather than exploitative.

But Queen of Hearts is different. Unlike the mothers in the films mentioned above, the relationship isn’t a… natural progression of events, arising from other circumstances. With Anne, it isn’t a case of “I don’t know how, and I still can’t explain why, but this thing just happened…” Anne explicitly seduces Gustav. She slips into his room and slips her hand under the sheet he’s covered himself with, and he responds, and soon, they are in the throes of a full-blooded affair. In an earlier scene, Anne ignores the friends who have dropped in for lunch and dances with abandon to a song she plays on her phone. The number is Soft Cell’s… Tainted Love. Too obvious? Yeah! But also, how prescient!

What makes Anne do this? Consider the scene where she meets Amanda, a teenager Gustav brings home. After some chit-chat, Amanda disappears with Gustav, presumably to have sex. We then see Anne in her room, in front of a full-length mirror. She takes her shirt off and examines her nearing-fifty body, which is no longer as firm as it probably was. There’s a similar moment in Imtiaz Ali’s Love Aaj Kal, after Jai (Saif Ali Khan) hooks up with a charming blonde, and subsequently, in order to share the good news, dials Meera (Deepika Padukone). (She’s his ex; they’ve had the most gracious, good-humoured breakup in the history of the universe.)

Love Aaj Kal.

At the other end, Meera smiles, genuinely happy that Jai has moved on – but once he hangs up, there’s uncertainty on her face. She catches sight of herself in the mirror. She pulls in her waist. She appraises her posture. She parts her lips wide, as if to reassure herself that it’s indeed a dazzling smile, capable of drawing someone charming into her life too, perhaps her boss Vikram (Rahul Khanna) who’s taking her to dinner – and she changes into a dress that reveals more-than-necessary leg and cleavage for a casual evening out (even if it is something of a date.) Could Anne be the victim of similar insecurity?

Of course, I am not comparing Meera with Anne in general – but just in this one scene, this one moment, we catch a glimpse of their vulnerability. But beyond this, the director May el-Toukhy doesn’t sympathise with Anne. In her note about the film, she calls Queen of Hearts “the story of a tragic fall from grace”, and the words that follow seem like self-flagellation. “I’ve made many mistakes in my life. I’ve made bad decisions, faltered when it mattered, and shown poor judgment over and over again. Some of the missteps can be overlooked and boxed away. Some have had painful consequences for others, and myself, and the ensuing shame and guilt of harming others has created a burden I have to carry: A burden which continues to shape me for better and for worse.”

Given Gustav’s tendency for PDAs (and given Anne’s increasing recklessness), it’s obvious that the affair will not remain a secret for long – and the final half-hour of the film is chilling. Will Anne understand what she has done? Will she sacrifice her perfect family – a loving husband, adorable twin girls – to help Gustav deal with the mess inside his head? Or will her self-protection instincts prevail? Will she opt to maintain the status quo in her existence? She is, after all, an attorney. She knows how to present the facts of a case. The director says: “We have a tendency in the world of fiction to tell stories about the idea that there is something good in the evil, but we seldom tell stories about the evil in the good, even though it also contains eternal truths about human behavior.”

At one point, Gustav asks Anne about the first person she had sex with. Anne doesn’t want to talk about it, “because sometimes what happens and what must never happen are the same thing.” Gustav asks, “Like you and me?” He knows. But that still doesn’t exonerate Anne. Towards the end, we get another mirror scene with Anne. This time, the reflection isn’t herself – it’s her conscience. Like Head Burst, which I wrote about last week, Queen of Hearts dives into things we don’t even want to think about, and leaves us with questions we cannot even begin to answer. All we can say is: I’m so glad that’s not me.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

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Updated Date: Dec 05, 2019 15:01:46 IST