Society tends not to bat an eyelid at intergenerational relationships so long as the elder member of the pairing is a man. Even as unease mounts over a mating pattern-turned-cliché, people seem more comfortable when the power dynamic aligns with the gender dynamic. It’s tough to say that older women can afford the same luxury, especially when she couples with a younger man. Think of the images conjured by the colloquial term “cougar” — predation, animal instincts. The enduring archetype best exemplified Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate presumes a desperation and jealousy in a sexually rapacious mother, robbing her of agency in her own desire.
Queen of Hearts attempts to understand why women who serve important roles as mothers and co-breadwinners feel the temptation to transgress social boundaries to placate libidinous urges. Co-writer and director May el-Toukhy does not attempt to excuse the actions of protagonist Anne (Trine Dyrholm), which begin with the seduction of her teenage stepson Gustav (Gustav Lindh). What she does achieve, however, is an explanation and elucidation of the forces that might drive a successful and (nominally) satisfied woman to act in such an impulsive manner.
In both the narrative and visual structure of her film, el-Toukhy conveys Anne’s feelings of invisibility and voicelessness. The family takes her stable presence so for granted that Gustav feels completely comfortable having loud sex with a female peer within Anne’s earshot. The camera of cinematographer Jasper J. Spanning frequently manages to catch her apart from large social gatherings of people, if not isolated from them entirely. Though she often places herself away from the action by choice, Anne does not wish to hide — she wants to be seen. In the film’s most vulnerable moment, she stands naked in front of her bedroom mirror when her husband is away. Anne so desperately craves sexual self-actualization but realizes that fears the only gaze for which she’s an object is her own.
Within this resigned state of mind, Anne perceives the innocuous graze of Gustav’s hand as something more intentional than it is. For the audience, it’s clear that the physical contact by the troubled teen represents nothing more than innocuous physical contact. Yet el-Toukhy, by this point, has burrowed so deep into Anne’s subjective experience that his touch feels positively tantric. The slight softening of Gustav’s tough exterior gives Anne the gumption to initiate sexual contact with her stepson, a move that unleashes far more chaos into their family than perhaps even their direst imagined scenario.
The film’s only real weak link comes from how it portrays their intimacy. The frankness of the presentation stands in contrast to the rest of Queen of Hearts, which illuminates the multiple layers of fraught, unspoken subtext in any given scene. When it comes to sex, the act is really just the act — particularly for Gustav, whose feelings scarcely receive airtime … and certainly not with much depth. In their first encounter, el-Toukhy briefly shows the point of entry when Anne begins performing fellatio. (At least, per IMDb keywords, it’s a prosthetic.) Such an unvarnished depiction, like the scenes themselves, does little to burrow past the sensationalism of their relationship.
Ironically, it’s only in the wake of their affair’s unraveling that Anne begins to realize the privileges that her age, position, and status confer. When it comes down to it, Anne’s word holds more weight than Gustav’s. Watching the dynamics flip proves a riveting watch for a viewer of Queen of Hearts, yet that’s all cold comfort for Anne herself. Though she receives the carnal gratification she seeks from Gustav, Anne comes to the realization that her affair cannot come without a cost. Her challenge in the final act of the film boils down to how much of that penalty she’s willing to bear herself … and how much she’s willing to offload onto others to maintain some semblance of normalcy in the life she once led.