The director talks with Joey Moser about writing and directing the Danish submission for International Feature Film, Queen of Hearts.
Queen of Hearts is not an easy sit, and director May el-Toukhy wants you to have an introspective experience with it. The film centers on a successful lawyer named Anne, who risks her personal and professional life when she seduces her 17-year-old stepson. Grounded by an astonishing performance from Trine Dyrholm, el-Toukhy’s film doesn’t let you look away, in a shocking and intimate tale of how the dynamics of power can shift—no matter the gender.
I’ll admit that I was surprised by how much el-Toukhy expressed that she wanted her audiences to make up their minds or look inward on such a sensitive topic. American audiences almost always want definitive answers and tidy endings, but Queen of Hearts deals with such a touchy topic in a way that hasn’t been portrayed on screen in a very long time. We see a woman using her position and privilege to take advantage of a younger person, and see her transform into a monster.
el-Toukhy directs her actors with such a careful and deft touch. Sometimes the camera sits there, unmoved, and we find ourselves pulled into the action—almost as if we find ourselves part of her story and witnessing this behavior. Queen of Hearts avoids being unduly salacious, and we are transfixed to the end.
(Please note that this interview contains spoilers for Queen of Hearts. Watch the film before you come back and read the insightful things the director has to say.)
Awards Daily: You made a statement that I found very interesting, where you said that there are movies where we see the good in bad characters, but you were interested in seeing the bad in a good character. Can you elaborate on that?
May el-Toukhy: I think it’s very common where we meet a character who we presume is bad and then they are good. It’s a narrative in a lot of literature in Western Europe and almost all Shakespeare. I was thinking about doing a piece where it’s the opposite. I wanted to make a film where the audience could fill it in with their own beliefs and moral, internal discussion. We talked about the good and the bad and if she was a bad woman. Talking too much about that, I impose my own beliefs onto the audience so the dialogue disappears within the audience member if I tell them what to think. It’s definitely something I thought about with the script and during the editing. I tried to make a film that is true and authentic to life, in a way. That does not necessarily give the audience what they want.
AD: I do admire how you make us confront our feelings about the actions of the characters. You don’t give us an easy way out. I kept thinking ‘cancel culture’ as I watched it.
AD: You’re talking about how hard it is to promote it, and in reviews and discussion of the film, I found people are focusing on the physical acts between Anne and Gustav. Does it bother you that some people aren’t thinking of the emotional and intellectual repercussions of the characters’ actions?
MeT: There are many ways to see it. I would never question an audience’s view of the film. I can be frustrated when I hear about people not taking in the bigger picture. There’s two divisions. There’s one division of audience members that think the crime itself is the relationship. The other division thinks the crime is a lie. It’s difficult to talk about without spoiling, but for me, there’s no right or wrong in the perception of the film. When I meet people, I’m just curious to talk to them about the film and the way they interpret it tells me a lot about them. That’s what I find most interesting with traveling with the film and meeting audiences.
AD: I wanted to talk about the look of the film. Anne and Peter’s house has a lot of light colors—a lot of white and slick surfaces—but there is a juxtaposition with the scenes outside. There’s a lot of scenes set in the woods. I remember one shot of Gustav walking up into the woods after he and Peter come back after they’ve been away.
MeT: Very early on, I found out that I wanted to do a modern, Gothic tale and in Gothic art there is a lot of nature. Nature is a character of its own, because human beings are part of nature. I found something animalistic in her behavior and there’s a hierarchy. I worked with my production designer [Mia Stensgaard] and my cinematographer [Jasper Spanning] to enhance that, making it about class in civilization. The house is very modern with big, glass windows, with long stretches of surfaces, and I wanted to rub that civilization up against nature. One of the things I realized I had to move away from is when you go into a closeup of each character. Just a classic way of capturing a bigger image and then narrowing it down. You cut up a closeup between two or more characters, but I realized I might be manipulating the audience more than I wanted to. It’s a basic thing for filmmakers to manipulate or direct the emotions of the characters and therefore change the direction of the audience’s feelings of the characters.
AD: I’ve never heard a director actually say that before.
MeT: I wanted to make the audience active in the tale and one of the ways I could do that was to not cut up the scene too much. I wanted a way to observe the relationship and observe the development of it, in that way kind of make space for the audience to put in their own beliefs and their own thoughts. Of course, it depends on the moral compass of each audience member. By moving away from constantly directing the audience, I could do that. There’s also the reference to Alice in Wonderland and that was key for me. My co-writer, Maren Louise Kaehne, and I decided Anne would read to the kids at night, and for a long time we searched for the right material to do that. At the time, she was reading the book, so we put that in it. It became a key because Alice falls down the rabbit hole, and everything is turned upside down. The rules are constantly changing, and I used that as a visual key since there’s a rabbit hole at the beginning.
AD: I really felt the camera just observing. It’s almost like we are stumbling upon them ourselves and we are put in that position.
MeT: We become witnesses and bystanders in the process of it developing.
AD: Speaking of your writing partner, could you describe how it is to work with another writer on such a sensitive topic?
MeT: We worked on a film together before, and we’ve known each other since film school. The way we work is that we find a topic or an idea or a theme and we talk about it for many, many weeks to investigate the potential of it. Eventually, we take turns writing the different written material whether it be a synopsis or script, so we are writing on top of each other and then the text comes through it. By the end, we can’t remember who wrote what. We communicate through the text. We try out what ideas we want to explore. We find, in our collaboration, we become more creative when we communicate through the written word only because it’s a fluid process. The characters also have wants and needs. For this idea, the way it started was I was interested in exploring the family secrets.
AD: What do you mean?
MeT: What are the components of the creation of a family secret. What kind of family? What kind of characters? I wanted to explore power structures in a microcosm. What kind of power structures exist in a family and what are the responsibilities and entitlement that come from being powerful? The last thing was that we both read articles about stepmothers having affairs with their stepsons or female teachers having affairs with their male pupils. That narrative is very different than the narrative of a stepfather with a stepdaughter. It’s more difficult to tackle, and there’s a tendency to romanticize a stepmother and her stepson or a female teacher with her male student versus when the genders are reversed. We know it’s wrong when it’s a stepfather and a stepdaughter. We know it’s not an equal relationship in a way. Whereas, when the genders are reversed, it’s a bit more difficult to grasp. We wanted to do a piece where we investigated this and to see if the relationship could be told with the same authenticity and the same brutality than if it were the other way around.
AD: I wanted to ask about that! I kept thinking that if the genders were reversed and if the man had a lot of privilege and power, it wouldn’t have been made. Especially in America. People would flip out.
MeT: No, it wouldn’t have been made. If I had to do that movie, there were so many choices I would’ve done differently—especially the explicitness of the sex scene. The explicitness wouldn’t have been needed if the genders were reversed because we are so familiar with that dynamic. But to understand the severeness of the situation, it needed to be this way. I don’t think many directors like doing sex scenes. It’s technically demanding and challenging, but I sensed that it was needed. My goal was to—in a way—lure the audience into maybe wanting it to happen. Once it’s happened, I felt it happened with so much visual explicitness, I started to question myself. The internal discussion was stacked by that moment. When I talk to people who have seen the film, everyone mentions that that is a moment where they are reflecting on the morality of the characters’ actions.
AD: And in certain films or storytelling, audiences almost cheer it on?
AD: It’s a disturbing fact, but it’s fascinating. In a statement about the film, you briefly talk about how everyone makes mistakes and people can grow from those mistakes. Have you envisioned how Anne may grow from this?
MeT: The ending is quite open for interpretation.
MeT: For me, I see her as this character who is hurt. She has this existential loneliness, and she comes from a family who has been struggling and she had past experiences that defined who she is. She’s clinging to what she has and she’s fighting to hold onto what she’s gained. I believe her and Peter have made a pact. In a way, the surgery is complete, but the patient died. That’s the way I interpret the ending. She got away with it or at least she came through to the other side, but she has to live with this for the rest of her life. The making of the family secret will drizzle down to the next generation. It influences the way her family works, her relationship with her husband, and eventually the relationship with her children. How do you see the ending?
AD: I have a sense that Peter knows more than he is revealing. Or maybe he suspects Gustav was right all along. I think parents have an instinct with things like that. I think irreparable damage has been done.
MeT: That’s interesting.
AD: I’d be very curious as to what this marriage would be like in five or 10 years.
MeT: Yeah. They are deciding on a truth, and you can’t come back from that. They live with that lie between them. Not a collectively loneliness but a separated loneliness, and that might be the worst thing.
Queen of Hearts is streaming now.