At this point, the woman on the verge of a complete schizoid break is a cinematic cliché. What is most odd about the subject’s frequency is that it is often grounds most heralded by white male directors. This can — for obvious reasons — be problematic (bordering on sexist at its worst), but has notably brought us some of the best films in history. Two films that come to mind are Roman Polanski’s 1965 psychological horror film Repulsion and Ingmar Bergman’s psychological drama released the following year, Persona. These are the two films very much at the forefront of most recent discussions of Alex Ross Perry’s latest film, Queen of Earth. Nearly every review has made a reference to either one, if not both, which is understandable; Queen of Earth is very much indebted to both of these works. But, it doesn’t end there; there is a great deal more to Perry’s fourth — and possibly most accomplished — feature film.
The first image presented to viewers is an extreme close-up of Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) in a state of distress. Mascara is smudged beneath her eyes and dark shadows obscure the contours of her face as she pleads to and berates her off-screen boyfriend, who has apparently just ended their relationship. Perry — through the lens of his longtime DP Sean Price Williams — holds the shot for an uncomfortably long time, forcing the viewers to stay fixated on Moss’s performance. It’s a powerful open, a balancing act that shows not only Catherine’s emotional vulnerability but also her teetering instability. It’s a scene that sets the rest of the film’s plot, which at times can be abstruse, into motion.
At its core, Queen of Earth is a very simple film. Katherine Waterston (who made a big mark in last year’s Inherent Vice) plays Virginia, the affluent, if somewhat aimless, 30-something best friend of Catherine. The film unfolds over two of the duo’s annual getaways to Katherine’s family’s cottage and deals with the intersection of two pivotal, emotional moments for the women. One of Queen of Earth’s most engaging characteristics is the way that Perry and his editor Robert Greene handle this narrative time gap. Perry mixes two very opposing concepts, by interplaying a very linear (almost literary) day-by-day structure with an achronological mashing of the past and present stays at the woodside cottage. This allows for Perry to contrast the opposing atmospheres, which works to expose the swelling emotional tension between the women.
Perhaps the film’s greatest weakness is only intensified by the reliance on its genre. The ‘psychotic woman’ trope is vulnerable to quasi-sexist interpretations, which are only intensified by the film’s narrative justifications. Catherine, suffering from the loss of not only her father (suicide) but also her boyfriend, can be seen as a woman broken by the absence of the two most important male figures in her life (this is supported by the film’s own description of Catherine’s dependency on both). While this can be argued, it seems like no one understands this better than Perry, who seems to be addressing these tropes through his plot, rather than blindly accepting them. Perry’s prevalence for dark comedy casts a broad net around his subject matter, relieving the film of any sort of over-moralizing or thematic grandstanding.
Like both Repulsion’s Catherine Deneuve and Persona’s Bibi Andersson, Queen of Earth is supported by a riveting performance by its lead Elisabeth Moss. Having a strong run of films following the completion of her long-running role on Mad Men, Queen of Earth is perhaps Moss’s finest and most demanding performance. At about the two-thirds mark, Moss delivers a chilling takedown of Virginia’s fling Rich (Patrick Fugit), one of the most haunting scenes in recent memory. Moss gives Catherine a frightening sense, while remaining both relatable and sympathetic. Sitting beside Moss, Waterston is great as Viriginia. While her performance as Shasta in Inherent Vice received an immense praise from critics and fans, her stoic nature seemed out of place in the film. However, it is that very nature of hers which works wonders in Perry’s script. Her demeanor heightens her cold and often callous interactions, and her chemistry with Moss is nearly unparalleled on screen this year.
Perry doesn’t fill the film with any sense of false sentimentality. He has stated,in an interview with Indiewire, that the film came to him during a retrospective on Rainer Werner Fassbinder: “the common thread here is these really interesting women stories — these unique, threatening and occasionally frightening stories about the troubles of broken women…I wanted this movie to live in this cinematic world of broken women.” Queen of Earth is exactly that; it’s a loving throwback to cinema of the late 60s, early 70s, a gritty and dark depiction that doesn’t feel an ounce contrived or pretentious. This works because his characters are flawed, and they feel only the more real for it. Perry saves us overt fawning, catharsis, and (thankfully) avoids the tired lesbian or ‘single white female’ cliches. Its a contemporary melodrama without the excess.
Visually speaking, Queen of Earth marks a monumental advancement in both Perry and Williams’s careers. Queen of Earth sees both artists reducing their Cinéma vérité tendencies in favor of a more polished and well-articulated visual style. While the camera work in Listen Up Philip often matched the tone of voice, the zooms and rack focusing did, at times, feel a bit empty. Queen, however, is masterfully crafted. Every shot fits its purpose and there doesn’t seem to be a single technical decision not intensely scrutinized by Perry. Once again, Perry and Williams’s shot on 16mm and the texture adds to the film’s gritty atmosphere. Perry, better than any director working today, understands how to find humor in even the darkest and saddest of situations. All of his work features a strong balance between sadness and comedy, but Queen sees Perry favoring the former more than ever. Queen of Earth is not without its humor though, and it’s perhaps this aspect alone that allows the film to transcend material that (if in different hands) could easily be trite and hollow.
Queen of Earth is Perry’s best work yet and will hopefully be a sign of better films to come. It’s interesting to see that where he goes next will be to tackle a Disney film, but one wonders if he has any plans to head deeper into darker genres — Queen certainly shows he has the chops to handle it. As a filmmaker who has vocally championed Sylvester Stallone as an Auteur as much as any arthouse director, Perry is cemented in a trajectory of cinephiles-turned-directors and is a real hope for modern film, so let’s hope he doesn’t succumb to lifeless mainstream films (although, based on his past interviews, I doubt it). I for one will be eager to see Alex Ross Perry’s take on Winnie the Pooh, will you?
Queen of Earth opens in select theaters Aug 26th via IFC Films and is now available on VOD