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SUNDANCE 2019 World Cinema Dramatic Competition

May el-Toukhy • Director of Queen of Hearts

“It becomes hard to define what is wrong and what is right here”


- We chatted to May el-Toukhy, the director and co-writer of Reina de corazones, which scooped awards at the Göteborg and Sundance Film Festivals

May el-Toukhy  • Director of Queen of Hearts
(© Sundance Institute)

We sat down with May el-Toukhy on an unusually bright day during the Sundance Film Festival to talk about her recent drama Queen of Hearts [+see also:
film review
interview: Gustav Lindh
interview: May el-Toukhy
film profile
, a sombre yet nuanced story of domestic lies and abuse.

Cineuropa: What inspired you to make this film?
May el-Toukhy:
 I started working on this project when I was very interested in how family secrets are born. At that time, I lost someone very close to me, and soon after that, a lot of secrets surfaced. That made me think about all of those untold things that people carry around with them, and when they pass away, they don’t get revealed unless someone knows about them. So basically I wanted to explore the making of the family secret. Then I started to talk to my co-writer, Maren Louise Kaehne, about it, and over time, we read quite a few articles about female teachers who had sex with pupils. We discussed how that narrative is different and how people tend to over-romanticise a relationship between an older woman and a younger man, as opposed to one between an older man and a younger woman. We instantly know that the idea of a stepfather having sex with his stepdaughter is simply wrong, whereas when it’s a boy and his stepmother, it’s more of a grey area. It becomes hard to define what is wrong and what is right here.

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Why do you think that is?
Party because male sexuality and assault on men is a taboo. Also, many men don’t realise that they have perhaps been assaulted. There’s a fairly condescending way of discussing this issue: some people say, “Ok, so why wouldn’t a 17-year-old boy want to have sex with an experienced woman? What’s he moaning about?” For them it might not have been assault, but rather a great first or second sexual experience. But for some men, it was wrong, and it felt wrong; they just didn’t have the language to express that. And if they can’t talk about it, that experience can take up space in one’s soul and pop up in future relationships. I hope my film raises awareness of that issue and inspires victims to seek help.

A female sexual predator who preys on a younger man is a character we rarely see in films. What research did you both do before you wrote the script?
We read a lot of articles, essays and books, and even got as far as the Greek myth about Phaedra, who wanted to seduce her stepson, and when he rejected her, she accused him of rape. We didn’t watch films, because there are not a lot that actually tackle that theme. But the real breakthrough for me was meeting with a therapist who specialises in such cases and who has worked with both sides – the victims and the perpetrators. She told us, for example, what kinds of families it happens in. I didn’t feel the need to talk to predators who were in therapy; we had already accumulated a great deal of information, and I didn’t want our film to be a retelling of a specific case. I would have felt the obligation to honour that person or not to honour her. Also, for me as a filmmaker, it’s important to tell a broader story that many people can identify with.

Is there a pattern that you identified in these cases?
Yes, people who engage in a sexual relationship within their family are often lonely, and they long to be seen. Many of them have experienced violence themselves, when they were very young, for example. I’m not saying that every abused person will become a predator; it’s just one of the factors. Adult perpetrators of assault often orchestrate “a grooming process” that usually starts with the older person confiding in the younger one and making the younger one confide in them. They win their trust, treat them like grown-ups and have “adult” conversations. That relationship can evolve into a sexual one.

You imbue the main character with many different nuances; she is not simply a bad person doing horrible things.
For me and my writer, and especially when tackling this topic, it was extremely important to make that character as complicated as possible. Because even though she does monstrous things in the film, she was also once an innocent child who grew up under circumstances that made her who she is. And I also find it both fascinating and scary that there are currently so many stories about people doing both good and bad things. Trine Dyrholm is an actress who is very interested in complexity, so we were challenging ourselves at all times, and we kept on discussing whether what we were doing was true to the human condition.

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