The Danish psychological thriller “Queen of Hearts” — a Sundance award-winner, and Denmark’s Oscar submission — is an unpleasant, empty-headed morality play centered on incest, sexual trauma, and ethical double standards.
Director May el-Toukhy and her co-writer Maren Louise Kaehne try to bait viewers with a plot that initially feels like an artier Skinemax erotic thriller — tough-but-fair defense attorney Anne (Trine Dyrholm) has an affair with her angsty teenage step-son Gustav (Gustav Lindh) — but the filmmakers rarely consider their subjects’ emotions or backgrounds beyond a very finite point.
The film’s toothless consideration of Anne’s personal crisis is illustrated by the scene where she acts out by drinking too many Aperol cocktails and interrupting an equally boring dinner party by queuing up and drunkenly dancing alone to “Tainted Love.” If this scene is supposed to be mordantly funny, it doesn’t really show.
“Queen of Hearts” is also the kind of movie that throws a number of pseudo-provocative and negligibly complicating plot details at viewers — including seconds-long shots of what appears to be 24-year-old Lindh’s erect penis and 47-year-old Dyrholm’s stiff nipples, as if to suggest that both of their characters’ desire each other (as Anne insists later on) — in an attempt to make viewers ask themselves how we judge Anne, and to what extent she’s responsible for what inevitably happens to her and Gustav. But el-Toukhy and Kaehne make it too easy to emotionally check out of their sometimes artful, but mostly banal potboiler. There’s nothing really complicated about “Queen of Hearts”; it just looks a little more classy and mature than most softcore porn.
To be fair, el-Toukhy and Kaehne’s consideration of Anne and Gustav’s affair is compelling during early scenes where she addresses young female victims of domestic and sexual abuse. In these scenes, Anne reveals some aspects of her personality and priorities: She knows that the deck is stacked against her clients and wants them to know that they will probably feel humiliated when they testify on their own behalves.
Anne also often tells others that they should or already do know what they’re getting into when they talk with her, since she’s unsparingly open about who she is and what she wants. She’s also not made of stone, as we see in a scene where she (mildly) confronts one of her client’s assailants in a parking garage.
Anne’s emotional equilibrium is destroyed by Gustav, the estranged son of her stereotypically distracted, sulky doctor husband Peter (Magnus Krepper). Anne knows that Gustav tends to lash out at Peter since Peter didn’t really raise Gustav, seemingly at the request of Rebecca, Gustav’s biological mom. Anne also knows that: Peter has chosen to bury himself in his work; she has normal sexual needs; and the best way to make Gustav feel at home with Peter and his family is by having Gustav spend more time with Peter, Anne, and their two young daughters, Frida and Fanny (Liv and Silja Esmar Dannemann).
Still, Anne and Gustav have a tryst, the fallout from which is mostly heavy-handed and emotionally stillborn, as in the scene where Anne gets over her symbolically heavy-handed dislike of swimming (thanks partly to Gustav, who splashes Anne with water in an earlier scene) and explores a secluded lake by herself.
El-Toukhy and Kaehne make it too easy to look down on Anne’s actions because they not only seem disinterested in their supporting characters’ emotions but also don’t seem to care all that much about Anne’s feelings either. Knowing that she’s both kind and pragmatic enough to have a working moral compass is one thing, but seeing her wild out by listening to Soft Cell and doing the breast-stroke is only so satisfying. The writer and director also tend to let viewers off the hook whenever they introduce potentially complicating plot twists or character-enriching exposition; more often than not, they drop information in viewers’ laps, like the above-mentioned nudity, and then fail to follow up meaningfully on it.
Granted, there’s something to be said about how Gustav’s privilege as a straight, white young man potentially makes him less of a victim than Anne’s female clients. There’s also something fundamentally, and maybe universally, true about the way that Peter’s sexual disinterest and parental immaturity consistently drive Anne away from him and towards reckless behavior.
But there’s ultimately not much in “Queen of Hearts” to prompt a serious consideration of Anne’s actions. All three of the film’s principal cast members deliver strong performances, though neither Krepper’s nor Lindh’s role is as demanding as Dyrholm’s. And not even Dyrholm’s arresting, modestly scaled performance can carry a drama that’s so torn between shaming and sensationalizing its lead protagonist’s sexual frustration.
Gender inequality may be a potentially complicating factor when it comes to sexual trauma (i.e., men can also be abused by women), but that provocative conceit isn’t considered with much care or intelligence. Which is a shame, since “Queen of Hearts” shows great promise when Anne, talking about one of her clients, admits that “sometimes what happens and what must never happen are the same thing.” The rest of the movie is generally not as compelling.