In 1933, right off the heels of Grand Hotel, Greta Garbo had the power to do just about anything she wanted in Hollywood. So she decided to take on the infamous Swedish queen Christina, lover of the arts and lover to her female servants. And though Robert Mamoulian’s MGM retelling isn’t historically faithful (ie. she isn’t an outright lesbian), its spirit isn’t very far off. Its peculiarities help make it one of the most exhilarating entertainments to come out of Hollywood’s Golden Era.
Greta Garbo remains the most amazing creature to ever be captured on film: what happens between her face and the camera is inexplicable alchemy. But in Queen Christina one also sees a great artist at work. She plays a utopian philosopher-queen, using her very Swedish thoughts as an escape; an imperial war commander; a lover of literature, an aesthete taking amusement in Molière and Calderón; a Romantic muse and tragic figure; a comedienne unafraid to make a fool of herself; and, most tantalizingly of all, a man (a “bachelor”, as she puts it.) In the famous tavern scenes where Christina disguises herself as a Swedish man and drinks with the boys as if she were one of them, discusses life with them and then proceeds to sleep with “another man” (a Spaniard) in the same bed, the movie is vibrantly, tangibly subversive. (It would have been impossible to make in the years that followed, when censorship became harsher.) Garbo, a physically imposing Swede, carries herself with a masculine swagger in large portions of the film, not just when in disguise: she exudes an authority that defies genre. And whenever she dissolves into a woman again, the effect is deliriously erotic: her femininity is equally in charge. (There is a great post-coital scene where she memorizes the room where she made love, taking in the physicality of every object.) But these distinctions become altogether meaningless: no one has so blurred the lines between “masculine” and “feminine” as Garbo does here, in all her androgynous greatness. She is in a state of flux, like a deity so bored with human trappings that she cannot wait to move on to the next thing. (She won’t weep much for her lover, either.) Garbo’s Christina is escaping the world and herself.
Like Garbo, the movie is many things—a historical picture, a comedy, a romance, a tragedy—and none of them. The charmingly literate screenplay is full of surprises and high spirits; so is Mamoulian’s direction, decidedly inspired. There isn’t a dull moment to be found in this winning film, both ahead of its time and very much a product of it.
Dir. Robert Mamoulian / 1933 / US