J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

The Girl King: The Queen Who Read Descartes

While Garbo’s Queen Christina only dropped the merest hints of lesbianism, Mika Kaurismaki embraces all the speculation regarding her sexuality. However, he also devotes plenty of time to her growing attraction and ultimate conversion to Catholicism. It might sound highly contradictory in our day and age, but it was made possible by the unyieldingly strict Lutheranism the Swedish court adhered to. The Swedish Queen Kristina will love and lose in Finnish director Kaurismaki’s English language The Girl King (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Los Angeles.

Despite her early years spent with an unstable mother, Queen Kristina was raised to rule Sweden by Count Axel Oxenstierna, the High Chancellor. He mostly encourages her passion for books and philosophy, but insists she observe Sweden’s official Lutheran religion. However, the Queen’s enthusiasm for Descartes provides an opening for her Catholic suitors. France’s Ambassador Pierre Hector Chanut is the perfect man for the job. Despite his faith, he is welcomed at court, because of Sweden’s alliance with France against Germany. He also happens to be a close personal friend of Descartes.

For Oxenstiernia, Queen Kristina’s intellectual curiosity is not exactly ideal, but her refusal to marry is a more vexing problem. The throne needs its heir. Her reckless affection for Countess Ebba Sparre, her favorite lady-in-waiting, is also potentially destabilizing. When the nobles conspire to bring Sparre in line, it makes Rome look pretty inviting.

As costume dramas go, Girl King isn’t bad, especially if you enjoy watching Catholic troublemakers conspiring against dour Lutherans. It is the sort of film that boasts its best work in supporting roles, particularly Michael Nyqvist (from John Wick and the original Lisbeth Salander films) as profoundly dutiful Oxenstiernia. Hippolyte Girardot is also wonderful cunning and charming as the French ambassador. Unfortunately, Sarah Gadon’s Sparre comes across like an empty-headed Lolita mired in a state of arrested development. Malin Buska is considerably more forceful as Queen Kristina, but she’s still no Garbo—or Liv Ullman (the stakes are high when you play this Queen).

Queen Kristina’s story is certainly intriguing, especially when we layer on our own contemporary ironies. However, the neither-fish-nor-fowl execution lands it in a no man’s land between heady theological-geopolitical intrigue and sexually driven melodrama. For cineastes, its impressively severe mise-en-scene is worth seeing just to compare and contrast with Queen Christina and The Abdication (starring Ullman). It is okay, but viewers should easily be able to wait the mere handful of days until Wolfe releases it on video. Regardless, The Girl King opens this Friday (12/4) at the Laemmle Royal in LA.