Queen of Diamonds, Nina Menkes, USA, 1991, 77 mins
One Tuesday, at 11:30, I received an email from a friend. It said:
‘It’s amazing, it’s ‘up there’ with Wanda, Akerman, Varda!’
She was talking about Queen of Diamonds, by Nina Menkes (1991).
After I managed to see the film, I was left with an image: a palm tree burning in the middle of the desert while two people, a man and a woman, watch from afar. They do nothing except watch the flames for as long as the fire burns. He leaves a little earlier, but she holds on. Immobile, hands on her hips, she waits at the right-hand side of the shot until the palm tree, on the left, is devoured by the flames. We see her from behind. We watch her, while she watches. Her stillness means that, if it weren’t for the fire, we could believe that what we’re looking at is a photograph. This stillness, and the paradoxical feeling of restlessness generated in the viewer, is part of the film's essence.
The woman is Firdaus, the main character in Queen of Diamonds. She is played by the director's sister, Tinka Menkes, also co-editor. Firdaus is a blackjack dealer in a Las Vegas casino. She is a single woman about whom we know very little. We see her travelling through the landscapes of Las Vegas, always on foot: from the motel where she lives to the casino where she works; from the casino to the apartment where she looks after an elderly man; from the elderly man's apartment to the motel, and so begins the cycle again.
Her name is inspired by the book Woman at Point Zero (1973) in which Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi gives a voice to Firdaus, a woman in a Cairo prison condemned to death for the murder of her pimp. In the book, Firdaus tells her life story. It is a tale of systemic cruelty towards women: genital mutilation, violence and prostitution. The Firdaus in El Saadawi's novel says ‘I am a killer, but I’ve committed no crime.’ Nina Menkes's Firdaus is also a person who rejects the system, but rather than saying so through her story she expresses it through her actions: indifference, and apathy.
The first image we see of the star of Queen of Diamonds is of her long red nails, a watch on her wrist and a ring, all sticking out from beneath the duvet. Her face is covered in this close-up. In fact, there is not one close-up of her face throughout the whole film. Nina Menkes achieves something extraordinary: she creates a film in which the main character is a supporting character. It asserts the possibility of preferring not to be the protagonist.
The film comprises visually hypnotic fragments, among them a palm tree ablaze, three elephants dancing at night, the ruined landscape of Salton Sea and Firdaus’ ring inside a baked fish. The duration of these long and static shots is striking. Our main character inhabits a background position in each frame. Erika Balsom compiles some statements made by the director of Queen of Diamonds. She says that the film ‘is about the experience of being background’ and that she admired the capacity of her sister-protagonist to be invisible, and yet still lead.
The first shot of Firdaus alludes to other features of the world depicted by Menkes: the long red nails, the watch and the ring hint at the world of glitter, neon lights, gambling, money, deceit and pretence that is Las Vegas – a place that left its mark on the director while on location there. It’s no coincidence that the main sequence in the film portrays this world as a series of transactions. The sequence stands in sharp contrast with the rest of the film. It is the only time when there are zooms, camera movements, fast editing and the claustrophobic sound of coins, chips, machines and voices. Firdaus remains at her table and deals hand after hand. They're all the same to her; an infinite reproduction of cards and gestures. Firdaus remains unmoved, unshakeable, expressionless, her face made-up with white power as it is throughout the entire movie, as though she were wearing a mask. Firdaus is trapped in a system that puts profit above life and completely marginalises her. What if, instead of trying to fit into this imposed system, the grandest gesture were that of indifference? Why try to fight or win in a system that we neither like nor can stomach?
Queen of Diamonds uses a new method of storytelling to pose such questions. The film stood out at its premiere in 1991 at Sundance. Now, thanks to restoration by The Academy Film Archive and The Film Foundation in 2018, it is back at the fore of contemporary film programming. This unmissable piece of cinematic history is up there with the work of other crucial directors including Chantal Akerman, Agnès Varda and Barbara Loden.