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Audrey Kupferberg: The Girl King

New to DVD and streaming this month is an oddly disappointing film called THE GIRL KING.  The feature, produced and directed by Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismaki, has an exciting story to tell, but THE GIRL KING provides little excitement as it relates the unusual life of 17th Century Swedish Queen Kristina.

According to Kaurismaki’s film, what makes this royal provocative is the fact that she often dressed as a male and lived an openly lesbian lifestyle.   Is this a valid interpretation of Kristina’s life?  It’s difficult to say.  Certain historical accounts are clear in telling readers about Kristina’s cross-dressing and love for beautiful women, while other accounts simply discuss Kristina’s discomfort with being a female ruler and her eccentric behavior. 

More than eighty years ago, in 1933, Greta Garbo played the title role in an MGM film called QUEEN CHRISTINA.  In this version, which was released just as the restrictions of The Hollywood Production Code were taking hold, Christina dresses at times as a man, but in such a way that flatters Garbo’s curves.  The intent of this version is to play to the values of mainstream audiences of Depression America, and while it does so, there are winks and jabs to the legendary unorthodox behavior of the queen. There are a few nods to lesbianism, but none are obvious.  In fact, the crux of Garbo’s Queen Christina is her heterosexual love affair with a handsome Spanish envoy, played by Garbo’’s real-life lover, John Gilbert.  QUEEN CHRISTINA is a classic-- a stylish and sophisticated extravaganza from the imagination of urbane Russian-born filmmaker RoubenMamoulian. 

On the other hand, THE GIRL KING, Kaurismaki’s new interpretation of the Queen Kristina story, is dull and flat.  The screenplay by Michel Marc Bouchard includes details of Kristina’s dedication to intellectualism, the communications with her mentor Rene Descartes, her unhealthy childhood under the thumb of a deranged mother, and her love for a beautiful young countess.  Trouble is, the screenplay has no real highs and lows. 

THE GIRL KING gives one detail after another about Sweden’s wars and peace treaties, its peasant population and their lack of education, and Kristina’s inability to fit into her select society.  By the end of the film, time has passed and things have happened, but nothing really percolates. 

Unlike Garbo, THE GIRL KING star MalinBuska lacks an inner fire.  Her bland looks and flat performance add little insight to this complicated character. I say “bland looks” meaning she has a face that carries no intense emotion.  According to history, Kristina was a very homely woman, so there needn’t be an emphasis on prettiness.  But there needs to be meaning and depth in her visage.

The final moments of Garbo in QUEEN CHRISTINA are among the most famous in film history.  They will stay in the minds of viewers for years to come.  As Garbo stands on the deck of a ship sailing away from her homeland, she stares ahead.  Garbo was instructed by Mamoulian to make no expression of emotion.  Garbo’s face is so interesting, so fabulous, that this final close-up is endowed with power and magic.  No visible acting process was needed.

What about the final scene in THE GIRL KING?  I saw the film only last evening, but I just can’t remember.  Others have seen THE GIRL KING and find it a captivating film with a powerful leading lady.  In September, Buska won Best Actress at the 39th Annual Montreal World Film Festival for her performance, and THE GIRL KING, won the Audience Award for Most Popular Film.  And that’s what makes horse races! 

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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