More films from women, and starring women, means more stories about complicated women, and that’s what’s captivatingly on display in filmmaker May el-Toukhy’s domestic drama “Queen of Hearts,” Denmark’s submission for this year’s Oscar for best international feature film.
A peek inside the luxuriously modern country home of formidable lawyer Anne (Trine Dyrholm) and physician husband Peter (Magnus Krepper) would suggest this is a do-gooder pair’s serene refuge: for their cheery twin daughters, for the occasional party hosting their liberal-minded friends and, when necessary, for one of Anne’s clients — typically a young victim of domestic violence — who might need temporary shelter.
When the couple take in Peter’s estranged, surly teenage son Gustav (Gustav Lindh) from a prior relationship, there’s an adjustment period even for this capable couple. Gustav is good with the girls but he also stages a burglary to steal from the house, which Anne, deploying her mom-as-attorney abilities, discovers and uses as leverage to convince Gustav to step up as a family member. It’s a well-intended authority move but with unfortunate consequences when Anne becomes attracted to her stepson, then seduces him.
The tricky brilliance of “Queen of Hearts” is in how el-Toukhy uses a well-worn narrative — the unsuspecting, hidden passion with the appearance of erotic freedom — to unveil what in reality is a poisonous tale of abuse. If that element isn’t clear from the start because of the smiling postcoital faces on Anne and Gustav, it’s made perfectly obvious when exposure is threatened, and Anne turns into an unforgivably cruel protector of her comfortable life at the expense of an emotionally ill-equipped kid under her care.
El-Toukhy’s taut, Sirk-via-Lupino direction of her script is a confident mapping of this melodrama’s fault lines, marked by the formidable tension of her scenes and her framing of the characters against their environment. The key performances are powerful, and Lindh’s way with the insecurities bubbling inside a sour, vulnerable teen is a small marvel. But at the core of this elegantly queasy tale is Danish star Dyrholm’s commanding portrayal of Anne in all her righteous charm, certainty and triggered malevolence, which by the end can make the most charitably minded viewer toward a middle-aged woman’s desires feel like an enlightened dupe, slapped into awareness of how families are no different as power structures than any business shielding a crafty manipulator’s systemic abuse.
As “Queen of Hearts” moves toward its conclusion, though, Dyrholm is never anything but dimensional about her character’s choices, which keeps this material from being easy to swallow as a moral thriller, and instead edges it ever so persuasively into the realm of soul-crushing tragedy.
Running times: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 1, Laemmle Glendale