Friday, April 26, 2013

Queen Christina

Queen Christina
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Starring: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Ian Keith

Biography films aren’t really my cup of tea, let alone biography films that cherry pick certain events or characteristics to portray a white-washed version of a real person.  Queen Christina is better than most early Hollywood biographies, but honestly, that’s not saying much.  Garbo is good, but the sentimental nature of the story is overpowering.

Queen Christina of Sweden (Garbo) ascended the throne at six years old after her father, who raised her as a boy, died in battle.  Grown, she maintains many masculine sensibilities like wearing men’s clothing, riding, and hunting, all while maintaining several (male) lovers, most notably in the form of Count Magnus (Keith) who’s a bit of a hothead.  Sweden is in the middle of the Thirty Years’ War and Christina rules her kingdom well, sacrificing much in the name of honor and duty, but she is growing tired.  One night, trapped at an inn in the middle of a snowstorm, she must share a room with the Spanish ambassador, Don Antonio (Gilbert).  The two quickly fall in love.  Christina soon realizes that politics and romance do not make comfortable bedfellows.

I enjoyed Garbo pretty well as Queen Christina.  She plays the queen with an unrelenting confidence tempered by an extraordinary sense of duty which is hard for me to dislike.  From a feminist standpoint, I appreciate that Christina doesn’t crumble into a heap of nothing once she falls in love with Don Antonio.  The movie does NOT have just the message that she was somehow living a worthless existence until she met the right man (although that is tinged around the edges, I admit), but instead, we see that Christina is strong and meeting Antonio is simply a significant chapter in her life.  Garbo is a natural fit for this type of character, one who can be lit on fire with passion but who can also utter proclamations, one who loves her people but also craves solitude.  Being Swedish herself, I can imagine that Garbo felt more connected to this role than others.  In my head, Christina is someone she identified with very much.

But if Christina is strong, I find most of the men around her, including Antonio, to be prissy little drama queens.  Antonio is all pissed-off and childish when he finds that Christina deliberately did not tell him of her true identity.  Dude, she’s a queen.  She figured you’d judge her – just like you’re judging her now.  And what is there unique about Antonio that makes Christina fall so passionately in love with him?  Blowed if I know.  He seems so thoroughly average, such a run of the mill standard issue “Hero” with all the heroic traits one might expect.  And then there’s Magnus, Christina’s former lover whom she jilts in order to have sexy times with Antonio.  If Antonio gets a bit bitchy, it’s nothing to Magnus.  Why are all these men so utterly adolescent?  Whining and scheming and gossiping, they’re worse than my high school students.  I honestly lose respect for Christina for picking Magnus at any point in the film because he’s so slimy and immature.  Dear lord, woman, what was the attraction there?!?


I have some problems with the ending of the film as well.  I really wish that Mamoulian had simply finished the story after Christina’s abdication.  Up to that point, I understand that Christina is abdicating not just because she fell in love, but because she is tired of sacrificing absolutely everything to her country.  It’s not wrong to make that sacrifice, but she wants to live her own life, not Sweden’s.  I’m with you, honey.  I smell what you’re stepping in.  The last fifteen minutes, however, completely undermine all of that and try to bring it back to a soppy romance flick, which vastly undercuts Christina’s power as a person, making her out instead to be simply “another lovesick woman.”  The duel was pointless to me, putting the focus unnecessarily on Antonio instead of Christina – it makes the climax of the film shift from Christina’s abdication (what it SHOULD be, given the title of the film) to a duel between two men.  I don’t give a flying you know what about the petty squabbling of Antonio and Magnus.  Their fighting over her drags her down to their level and completely saps her of any feminine independence.  It would have been a far more powerful end if it was simply her leaving her court.  I know the actual final shot of the film with Christina on the bow of a ship is heralded as one of the most memorable of the film, but there would be ways to achieve that same effect without the stupid men fighting over her sequence.


Mamoulian has some pre-Code fun with Queen Christina, mostly around the idea of Christina dressing like a man.  When Antonio first meets her, for example, he has no idea she’s a woman (a fact I didn’t buy for a second, by the way, what with Garbo’s clearly shaped breasts and fake eyelashes), and when he later finds out, his reaction is priceless.  The segment where Antonio and Christina shack up in the inn is sultry and passionate, and has enough clear statements of sexuality that I’m certain it would have been censored in the years that followed. 

I read up a bit on the actual Queen Christina while watching this film (because frankly, it bored me a little) and discovered that the filmmakers actually significantly toned her down.  The romance with Antonio was mostly a fabrication, but reports vary as to her actual sexual appetites.  The real Christina seems even more colorful and salacious that we get here, sleeping with possibly both men and women and rather hell-bent on doing things she shouldn’t (an affair with a priest, for example).  If anything, Hollywood toned DOWN the true stories, even for a pre-Code film.  

Honestly, when it comes down to it, I’m remarkably ambivalent about Queen Christina.  I neither like it nor dislike it.  And that fact in and of itself is a bad sign.  A film should register somehow, somewhere, for me, and this one is just… there.  That’s it.  Is it good?  I guess.  It didn’t make me apoplectic or anything.  But it also never drew me in to its world.  It never intrigued me.  I liked Greta Garbo, but I didn’t fall in love with her.  I felt completely disengaged the entire time. 

Arbitrary Rating: 5/10 for a thoroughly middling film.  Good Garbo, everything else was just there, and what could have been a huge POW! for feminism is massively undercut by unnecessary focus on the men.


  1. Yay! We disagree on one!

    I liked this one because I completely bought into the romance, but I admit that a part of that is I wanted to buy into the romance. Nice point about the focus on the duel--but I still bought the love story, so the whole thing worked for me.

    1. I'm funny when it comes to romance. I really like romance movies, but I guess I'm picky about it. If I can buy into the romance, I REALLY buy in and I'm COMPLETELY over the moon about it. But if I can't buy in, I tune out and turn off. I'm never halfway about romances. And I couldn't buy into this one, which kept me constantly at an arms' length from the story.

      Having said that, I really would have liked this movie much more if, as I say, it had ended 15 minutes before it actually did. It would have resonated much more with me.

  2. Cutting the last 15 minutes is a classic. At least 50% of Hollywood's production would have benefitted from such a cut and this is no exception. However I am with Steve on this one. I liked it better than you, partly because I like John Gilbert and partly because the somewhat theatrical tableau like cimematography actually fitted it well and made it look like the paintings of the period.

    Having said that you are absolutely right about the real Christina. I did some research as well and was surprised how colorful and scandalous she was. She was a one woman riot and I fully understand why it would not be possible to make a realistic portrait of her in the thirties, even in pre-code times. Now, however, would be the right time to do it. A movie or even better a mini-series over her life would be glorious. Wilder than Game of Thrones, more politically incorrect than Californication and more militant feminist than Thelma and Louise.

    1. Yes, I do believe the time is right to rediscover Christina and give her a proper Hollywood or television story! All the warts, all the sex, all the power, all the lust... it would definitely make for an entertaining story.

      And as for my feelings on the film, frankly, I expected most others to like it. There's definitely stuff here to like. It just never grabbed ME. John Gilbert wasn't BAD or anything, he was just a little bland. For me, at least. He was so utterly unoriginal, as I said, I just don't understand the attraction between Christina and his Antonio. Ah well.

      And YES, definitely, many older films should have been cut a bit shorter! Lots of unnecessary endings!

  3. Middling is right. But it's more like I hated this one the first time I saw it but gave it an 8/10 the second time around. I can't put my finger on why. I think Garbo has grown on me a bit. I used to think she could not act but I'm coming around. I adore Mamoulian and maybe I spotted more of his fluid camerawork the second time as well.

    Did you notice the bisexual shenanigans implied between Christine and her lady-in-waiting?

    1. Wow, that's quite a turn around! Hated it the first time, almost loving it the second. Quite a change, but not unheard of. I like watching movies twice (and, indeed, more than that... I'm a big fan of seeing movies over and over again). I think there's a lot to learn from a second go-around. Unfortunately, this was my second go-around with Queen Christina, so I think I'm unlikely to have such a change.

      My favorite Mamoulian, without a doubt, is Love Me Tonight. I adore that movie to the ends of the earth.

      I *did* notice the shenanigans with her lady in waiting! I liked that. I wanted more of them! But maybe, as TSorensen says above, if we get a modern day movie about Christina, we'll get them there.

    2. Another two big turn arounds were L'Atalante and Counsellor at Law. Unfortunately, I find that sometimes my mood can affect my reaction to a film.

      We are on the same page on Love Me Tonight. I have the "Isn't It Romantic?" clip saved so I can watch it any time I need a little boost.

    3. I rather like L'Atalante, so I'm glad you turned around on it. I definitely agree that mood affects reaction! If I'm too jittery or anxious, I can't really settle into a film, let alone a slow film.

      Oh, that's a great clip. Really pretty genius filmmaking. I also love the 'Mimi' number. The way Chevalier looks right at the camera... good stuff.

  4. Make it three for three with the men: I liked this film quite a bit as well. I gave it four out of five stars. Garbo carries the film. I knew the romances were fabricated, but that's just part and parcel of movies made in this time period - they had to have a romance in them.

    I agree with you that it wasn't remotely believable that Garbo would be mistaken for a man, but that's another convention of films that I just go with (i.e. no one recognizing Clark Kent as Superman or that a girl is pretty because she wears glasses and a pony tail.)

    1. I get that there had to be a romance, but did there have to be the duel? No. The duel was pointless, and to me, it dragged down Garbo's ability to carry the film, making it far less about her and more about the stupid men she was surrounded by. Garbo was fine, I liked her, and I agree that she was good. It was who she surrounded herself with that did nothing for me.

      Yeah, I didn't get too hung up on Garbo passing as a man, because, as you say, it was the convention of the time. Still found it a bit funny, though.