“Sometimes what happens and what must never happen are the same thing,” says Anne, a successful lawyer given to flouting expected codes of conduct, midway through “Queen of Hearts.” As excuses for an offense go, it’s on the slender side — a slightly more formal version of “the heart wants what it wants” — but Danish director May el-Toukhy’s sleek, engrossing melodrama isn’t liable to interrogate its characters. “What must never happen” makes for a better story, after all, and her film leads its characters into that territory with a detachment as cool as its polished Scandi interiors. The heat comes from viewers’ own emotional response to its doozy of a central transgression, as middle-aged, comfortably married Anne (Trine Dyrholm) initiates a reckless sexual affair with her troubled teenage stepson Gustav (Gustav Lindh): The premise’s “what?!” factor is so luridly high that the “why?!” one gets pushed to the background.
That this approach holds water for as long as it does comes largely down to the sharp, subtle gifts of Dyrholm, one of those actors who truly has to strain for a false note. Her finely shifting body language and simultaneously knowing, querying gaze go a long way toward making in-the-moment sense of an intelligent character’s most brazenly stupid decisions, even as we begin to suspect that the script, by el-Toukhy and Maren Louise Käehn, may be as bemused by her as we are.
In a conversation piece pitched halfway between the delicate Sirkian tragedy and Adrian Lyne at his most sensational, it’s the overridingly controlled nature of proceedings — from performance to production design — that keeps “Queen of Hearts” from sliding into the hysterical silliness that its provocations invite. You can’t quite turn away from it even as you don’t quite believe it: That will carry el-Toukhy’s sophomore feature (formally, a sizable step up from her 2015 romantic comedy “Long Story Short,” also featuring Dyrholm) far on the international arthouse circuit, and ought to net the interest of international producers in the director’s next move. (Meanwhile, you can practically envisage a Robin Wright-starring U.S. remake of “Queen of Hearts” while watching it.)
At a leisurely 127 minutes, the film takes time to build its crisis, while dropping hints from the off that something is rotten in, if not the state of Denmark, at least the state-of-the-art Danish home that Anne shares with her Swedish husband Peter (Magnus Krepper), an equally high-flying doctor, and their adorable twin girls. Though they’re an ostensibly enviable family, Peter confesses to wishing Anne were a little more submissive, while both partners are wedded to their jobs first and foremost. Their overall happiness seems brittle, cushioned by privilege but vulnerable to the slightest tremor: They get more than that when Gustav, Peter’s estranged son from his first marriage, moves in, having been expelled from both his school and his mother’s home in Sweden.
With father-son relations all but frozen over, Anne at first quietly inserts herself into the void as Gustav’s ally, covering for his misdeeds and buying him a high-end laptop; as a lawyer who specializes in representing young victims of abuse, her overtures of generosity to the sullen, withdrawn boy at first seem an extension of her job. Yet that particular character detail only confuses the picture once her kindness crosses the line into intimacy, first via conversation, then a kiss, then a full-blown sex scene shot with a very Scandinavian fusion of explicit candor and white-linen restraint. As one who deals compassionately with trauma-afflicted children on a daily basis, does she not view herself as a perpetrator of sexual assault? Has she legally talked herself into a trickier view of the situation? Or is she not thinking at all — a woman of the law finally giving in to unfiltered urge?
All these possibilities are kept afloat by Dyrholm’s fierce, fascinating performance — with an equally prickly, nuanced assist from Lindh, who can vulnerably switch gear in a single scene from precocious flirt to stunted brat. But if “Queen of Hearts” earns credit for casting no judgment on either character, its refusal to let us into anyone’s head begins to feel less like philosophical distance than a bit of a psychological dodge, particularly as the situation collapses into calamity, and Anne’s actions progress from heedlessly self-serving to clinically so. In one exchange between the lovers, el-Toukhy and Käehn tease the possibility that Anne may have a history of victimhood herself, before retreating into pointed ellipsis.
There’s a lot to unpack there, but doing so might muddy up the film’s gorgeous, compelling ice-noir surface — so pristinely maintained by Jasper J. Spanning’s fluid, limpid camerawork and the tight string motifs of Jon Ekstrand’s anxious score. An uglier, more abrasive film could be made from this unpleasant story, though in the #MeToo era, the more elegant, aloofly accomplished one el-Toukhy has made should still prompt a flurry of debate over its portrait of a female predator. “You don’t understand how people work,” says one exasperated character to another late in proceedings; if “Queen of Hearts” has a driving thesis beneath its glassy, alluring intrigue, it’s that no one really does.