Danish Director May el-Toukhy opens up about her masterful film and Oscar ambitions
It’s no surprise: Queen of Hearts, Denmark’s submission for this year’s Oscar for best international feature film, has landed in the United States with stunning force. “Gorgeous” and “compelling,” says Variety in its recent review. An “insidious” and “elegantly made” film, chimes in The Hollywood Reporter. The Los Angeles Times, meanwhile, exalts the “tricky brilliance” of this “soul-crushing tragedy.”
Of course, director May el-Toukhy’s “confident mapping” of an unravelling family drama can easily be confused with a moral thriller and a dark exploration of illicit desire. But, as Denmark In New York discovered in our recent interview with Ms. el-Toukhy, the complexity of the film is indeed multi-layered and partly hidden by its openness to interpretation. In an era of #MeToo and probing questions about accountability and representation, it becomes impossible to elude the film’s most pressing dilemma: how power and desire often descend into outright abuse.
With Oscar buzz buzzing, we sat down with Ms. el-Toukhy to get her take on her Academy-worthy film and how it dives into some of today’s most topical issues.
Denmark In New York: The New York Times has called Queen of Hearts a “gut-wrenching family drama” but the film is also very much an investigation of the boundaries of abuse and manipulation, solitude and estrangement. While your task as co-writer and director is to tell the story, not explain it, how would you categorize Queen of Hearts and what conclusions are you hoping that your viewers will reach?
May el-Toukhy: It has been my ambition from the very beginning not to judge the characters but make space for interpretation so that the audience can draw their own conclusions. For me, Queen of Hearts is a sort of cautionary tale. But I have met many audience members who experience the film in other ways than I do. And I love that. It is a film that can be perceived in many ways and that has been one of the main visions in the creation. We wanted to build a complex story about a complex theme — and in that way boost the dialogue and reflection within every audience member who sees the film. There is no right or wrong way to interpret this film but one thing that I really wanted to achieve was to start a discussion about the narrative of the relationship between an older woman and a younger man that we tend to romanticize in fiction. Queen of Hearts is for me a film about power structures. The responsibility that comes with being in power and the entitlement one can feel being powerful or superior.
Representation has, rightly, become a major conversation point in the film industry and Queen of Hearts is written by two women, directed by a woman, and has a main protagonist who is a woman. In your opinion, does representation impact the way a story is told?
May el-Toukhy: As a female filmmaker representation is a discussion I have all the time with my female and male colleagues. As a woman coming from a minority background (my father is Egyptian), I have always longed to be represented in fiction. As I child, I felt invisible because there was almost no nonwhite representation in fiction in Scandinavia. And as a young woman I felt invisible because the fictional representation of womanhood was limited to the elaboration of the good wife, the caring mother and/or the woman torn between work-life and domestic life. I have longed to see complex and nuanced female characters on screen. I think on screen equality is not going to happen if we just reproduce the same old good-natured female characters. We have to dare to expose both women that do good and women that do bad in order to be relevant for a contemporary audience.
Tell us a little bit about yourself — where your inspiration as a director and writer comes from and how you chose the medium of film as a form of expression.
May el-Toukhy: Mostly, I get inspired by stories or characters that face a big dilemma. I am very curious of nature and interested in almost everything and everybody. I read a lot and listen a lot. The reason why I love the medium of film so much is because it combines so many interests of mine. Psychology, visual art, fashion, music — the list is long. Filmmaking is a collaborative artform. We need each other in order to make a film and the beauty of that keeps me going.
Queen of Hearts is Denmark’s 2020 Oscar submission for best international feature film. This is, of course, an incredible honor. How are you living the moment and what do you expect from it?
May el-Toukhy: I am hoping and wishing for the best. There some things I can do but there is also part of this process that is out of my hands — where the film is on her own. I feel like an athlete who is being selected to represent my country at the Olympics. It is a great honor and privilege. And all I can do is to stay calm and fit!
You have been attached to The Lioness — a biopic of Karen Blixen’s life — and have said of Blixen that she was a woman of contradictions: *not only a victim — she was also dominant and enslaved by her emotions.” Is there a thin narrative thread connecting the fictional life of Anne in Queen of Hearts to that of the famous Danish author?
May el-Toukhy: I think there is a connection between Long story short, my first feature film, Queen of Hearts and the character of Blixen in that the women in these tales more or less create their own problems. They are, in a way, their own biggest enemy. And that is something that resonates deep within me. And it’s probably the reason why I keep chasing and creating female characters that have that tendency.
Alberte Wahlers is Denmark In New York’s Strategic Communications & Press trainee.