An unflinching , metaphysical dual character study enriched by brilliant performances.
If the reviews it’s received so far are any indication, Queen of Earth seems likely to be remembered as a minor footnote in a career that’s otherwise shaping up to be pretty major. The impulse to write the film off as little more than a curio, an opportunity for Alex Ross Perry to expand his creative palette rather than a fully realized work in its own right, is misjudged, but understandable. Queen of Earth was shot in less than a week in a single location during the period between the editing and theatrical release of Listen Up Philip, and the bulk of its narrative features only three actors. It’s been largely marketed as a horror movie, though it’s very light on anything that could be described as traditionally constructed scares, or, come to think of it, scenes. Queen of Earth is really only a horror movie in that it self-consciously adopts certain moods and beats from the genre in order to evoke the mind-set of its depressive, self-destructive protagonist; there are no jump scares or moments of catharsis, just an unceasing build-up of anxiety and psychological turmoil, seeming to be leading to an outburst of violence that never explicitly materializes.
The film opens as Catherine (Elizabeth Moss) is sliding into a state of intense despair – her father, a famous painter whose footsteps she’s always longed to follow in, has just committed suicide, and her long-term boyfriend, unable to cope with the resulting emotional fallout, has left her. A chance to find sanctuary is opened up when she receives an offer to spend a week in the isolated woodland retreat owned by the parents of her childhood friend, Virginia (Katherine Waterston). The two haven’t been on good terms recently, but Catherine sees this as an opportunity to re-vitalize their relationship. However, the claustrophobic confines soon open up deep-seated resentments and barely suppressed grudges. The riffs are intensified when Virginia invites over her boyfriend Rick (Patrick Fugit), an abrasive jock-type who has a mysterious personal beef against Catherine. Before long, the conflict between Catherine and Virginia soon devolves into a series of power plays, petty one-upmanship tactics and labyrinthine deceptions.
Catherine’s story, which dips casually into her memories and daydreams, is broken up into fleeting, impressionistic fragments, most of which are based around an experimental formal idea. There are recurring montages of the house’s grounds, connecting Catherine’s shifts in mental state to that of the earth itself. Interstitial, wordless shots of mundane behavioural tics provide a window into how both characters deal with their own, separate anxieties- Catherine paints frantically and eats junk food, while Virginia jogs and lapses into her slight obsessive compulsive tendencies. One of the most outstanding scenes features a lengthy monologue from Catherine about a failed romance. This is captured in a single take that’s almost entirely devoted to showing Virginia listening to the words before the camera roves over to Catherine’s face as she listens to a matching monologue from Virginia. It’s a succinct expression of how we internalize the problems of others, define ourselves in relation to them, and create mental images of those close to us that are shaped by our own subjective views of them, and the dangers that arise when we allow these falsified images to take precedence in our minds over the people themselves.
American cinema has a storied history of its mistreatment of mentally ill characters, tending to either paint them as hysterical, abject monsters or innocent, victimized martyrs. Queen of Earth is commendable in its treatment of Catherine as an individual who’s not defined by her condition but is nevertheless affected by it in every aspect of her life. Her breakdown is one of the most accurate cinematic depictions of sliding in a depressive jag that I can recall: the gentle temporal distortion; the paranoia; the gentle bodily dysmorphia; the way the descent appears, from the perspective of the depressed person, to be an outcome of passivity. Queen of Earth is a tone poem perceptively, and thrillingly tuned into the fluctuations of Catherine’s feelings, though Waterston kills in a tricky role as a character whose attitude towards Catherine constantly flits between pity and schadenfreude.
Most of the complaints directed at Queen of Earth have revolved around the idea that a straight male making a film about a toxic female friendship is audacious at a time when camaraderie between women is strikingly rare to see on the silver screen. This is certainly a cultural discussion that needs to be going on, but I personally don’t see the whiff of male projection and/or anxiety towards the unknowability of the female Other that Queen of Earth’s detractors have accused it of exhibiting. I think this argument would hold more weight if the central relationship wasn’t equally as explosive as the others that have been at the forefront of Perry’s previous films (of course, I’m writing from the viewpoint of a straight male myself, so feel free to take my opinion with a pinch of salt, but as somebody who recently rolled his eyes through Everybody Wants Some and The Neon Demon, I like to think that I’m not ineffectual when it comes to detecting these things). What I can say with some certainty is that I can deeply relate to this portrayal of a souring friendship between two bitter insecure individuals who remain together out of some warped sense of loyalty. True, this isn’t exactly empowering stuff, but surely having realistically flawed female protagonists is equally as important as having ones that are merely strong.
The outspoken and (justifiably) arrogant Perry, a former underground filmmaker whose first two features were infamously rejected by major festivals, has now achieved a level of arthouse success almost unthinkable for such a young director. His short filmography has even been honoured with a retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image. But the hype is justified. Perry is the real deal: political without being didactic, in dialogue with cinematic history rather than simply fetishizing it and always willing to use his camera’s expressive qualities to find new and radical ways of articulating underrepresented emotions and ideas.
Queen of Earth, directed by Alex Ross Perry, is distributed by Eureka Entertainment, certificate 15.