Queen Christina (1933)

“I have grown up in a great man’s shadow. All my life I’ve been a symbol. A symbol as eternal, changeless. An abstraction. A human being is mortal and changeable – with desires and impulses, hopes and despairs. I’m tired of being a symbol, Chancellor. I long to be a human being. This longing I cannot suppress.”

‘Queen Christina’, directed by Walter Wanger in 1933, is an America drama set in Sweden during the Thirty Years’ War. Greta Garbo plays the title character, a woman who is made Queen at an early age and then finds herself falling in love with Antonio, a Spanish envoy stranded in her country. She is forced to choose between the throne and her relationship, but the tensions in the country mean that her decision will lead to tragedy. It’s a comedy, and a surprisingly subversive one. The plot makes it sound like a staid Hollywood historical drama, but Garbo’s performance, far eclipsing those of the men around her, lift this film to a different level. The character of Queen Christina is a powerful one, and a person constantly pulling against the constraints of society and her own gender. Garbo plays the character as both sexually liberated and sexually ambiguous, it is strange to see such an early film to opening show bisexuality in such a clear way, but ‘Queen Christina’ doesn’t hold back, and, importantly, doesn’t offer any moral judgement on it. Garbo’s character is the heroine and her charismatic performance and iconic looks make the film something special. Around Garbo, the rest of the cast, the settings and the locations are more traditional, suggestive of heritage filmmaking. It’s a traditional view of the past with a very untraditional central performance. Roland Barthes once wrote an essay about Garbo’s face being a mask symbolising the contradictory distance and intimacy of Hollywood movies – at the end of the film , the camera focuses on her, unblinking and impassive, and the viewer feels at once apart and with her. For the first time, I can understand what Barthes means…

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s an exciting and swashbuckling film with an unusual central performance. I’d watch it in a double-bill with one of Bergman’s historical dramas, maybe ‘The Seventh Seal’ for the Swedishness of it all.

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