(Arbelos Films, 2019)
“Are you in pain?”
The first words spoken in Nina Menkes’s 1991 film, Queen of Diamonds, treated to a recent 4k restoration, slice through minutes of opening silence. With the leaden force of its rhetorical obviousness, the question lands with a thud, heavier than the Pope’s Catholicism or the sky’s regular hue. The question is asked by Firdaus, the film’s wraithlike protagonist, its silent affirmation provided by an unnamed, bedridden man whom she tends.
Firdaus—played by Menkes’s sister, Tinka—speaks little and is addressed less. We come to know her only obliquely, first through her red-lacquered talons and her jet-black hair, a tuft sprouting from beneath the sheets. Set in Las Vegas, Queen of Diamonds directs viewers’ attention not to the city’s pleasure-seekers but to its providers. Firdaus is a worker, a blackjack dealer. With foundation two shades lighter than her already wan complexion, she looks undead: living labor sucked vampirically dry.
Critics have oft noted that Menkes moves Firdaus—who might elsewhere be a background character—to the fore. Yet Tinka plays the character with a physicality that, far from passive or diffident, is insolent, taciturn: a glamorous sulk. Her rangy-limbed walk is like a preteen’s imagined runway strut. Mostly, the audience encounters her with arms crossed before her body, the entirety of her weight sunk into a single hip.
In one shot, a nameless character drives up to survey the reservoir’s view. “What the hell happened here?” he asks, his skin a leathered, artificial orange. “Boy, this is terrible. Used to be a beautiful place once.”
Bleak, arid, plotless: these features of the film inhere not because Firdaus lives in the Mojave Desert but rather because her environs are those ravaged by capital and haunted by dispossession. Menkes’s camera returns again and again to the wrongness of the settler-built environment, even as she admits its paltry seductions.
Menkes shapes the landscape by way of protracted immobile shots, in which cuts predominantly confer a change of locale. Alternating cloistered, nocturnal scenes—irradiated by phosphorescent blues—with desiccated, sun-beat expanses, Menkes tosses the viewer between dark and light. Days and nights pile up, are shuffled, and then re-dealt. The deck never changes.
Rather than mark time, Menkes loses it, also an effect of the film’s centerpiece, a seventeen-minute sequence of Firdaus at work. As she deals cards and takes bets, the camera betrays a fetishistic, almost Fordist obsession with the fluency of her movements and the mass-produced instruments that facilitate her labor. We watch the efficient choreography of Firdaus’s hands resting on the plastic card-dealing shoe, scratching at the verdant baize, shunting wads of cash out of sight with a glitter-filled acrylic paddle. Beady lights flare and slot machines trill in a bewildering cacophony of ornament and distraction designed to conceal amusement’s cost.
To the casino’s machinations, Firdaus is inured. This does not mean she’s a sadist or an ascetic: See her nails, her dresses, her baby-blue kitten heels. See the tacky objects—all strewn beads and sequins and faux-pearls—that accrue in her motel-room-cum-home. See her best friend, played by Emmellda Beech, a sparkling, exuberant presence. The two friends saunter into a police station to file a missing-persons report, ostensibly for Firdaus’s husband, said to have been away “on a trip” for at least three months. See how they don’t seem to miss him much.
With only smatterings of dialogue, Menkes builds the film primarily through oneiric images, a series of recurring motifs that portend but ultimately evade meaning. A group of children return to Firdaus a lost ruby ring. Later, as she listens dispassionately to a male companion’s lecture, she digs that same ring from the belly of a fish—served alongside diner fries. An indigo-soaked dance hall, punctuated by flickering red votives, flutters with contented couples. Then, we see three elephants in a line, their trunks swaying like the hips of the dancers. Firdaus pauses to stare at a roadkill carcass; later, she stands amid a crowd to observe a corpse pulled from a car, ambulance lights incarnadine like the candles before them. Each instance of velveteen gratification seems filched, fleeting, violence on its heels. More than once, Firdaus witnesses her neighbor beat his girlfriend.
Perhaps the most indelible of Menkes’s images is that of a single palm tree engulfed in flames. Menkes shoots from a distance, the scene a metonym for the film writ large: watch her let it burn.
If the film’s primary operation is tectonic, moving one marginal character to the center of the frame, an unavoidable result is further peripheral characters who perhaps deserve greater attention, such as Firdaus’s best friend. She sits languidly before the police station secretary, then holds up a wound: a whiplash zoom to her sutured wrist. “I did it for love,” she intones, with a hint of pride, as if romantic infatuation might only be an excuse, the arable land in which to seed an otherwise unexplainable desire for injury.
If anything approximates a denouement in Queen of Diamonds, it’s the wedding of Firdaus’s neighbor and his girlfriend. Here, matrimony is not a tired narrative substitute for death, but rather its ceremonial, festooned aisle. Dressed in layers of lace and anointed with ribbon looped into faux roses, the bride twirls around to reveal a colossal black eye. “How do you like it?” she asks, at once hopeful and resigned.
Set near the basin, the reception is parched, exsanguinated. Nearly all the guests wear white, including a requisite Elvis impersonator—the camera lingers equally on the contusion decorating the bride’s arm as it does the cake, the happy children, the rhinestones dotting the Elvis suit. That the camera dilates on the newlyweds’ joy does not, I think, condone the abuse. But I remain curious about the role of this elation and what the film permits her. It does not guide the audience to dismiss as ignorance the threadbare happiness she’s snatched for herself, however plaited it is to inexorable violence.
Cast alongside the bride’s cruel optimism and Beech’s brandished wound, Firdaus’s noncompliance and indecision is thrown into sharper relief. She wants nothing and refuses almost everything. She neither hustles nor yearns nor strives. Most of her dialogue riffs on a fundamental recalcitrance, variations on “I don’t know” and “no.” Above all, she repudiates our era’s confessional logics, the notion that to make suffering legible, even to name it, could do anything to parry its impact.
In the end, Firdaus leaves by cover of night, hitching a ride without ever hailing it. Her arms uncross only momentarily to open the stranger’s car door. It doesn’t really matter where she goes or how she gets there. And there would be no use asking her how she feels once she arrives.