Director: Alex Ross Perry
This review was originally published on Scannain.com
Queen of Earth starts as it means to go on, with emotions both buried and on display for all to see. It opens on a close-up of Elisabeth Moss in the role of Catherine, as she’s being dumped by her off-camera boyfriend. They exchange the requisite bitterness and emotions build, yet the camera stays on her face for the whole scene, through tears and trauma. The unflinching gaze of writer-director Alex Ross Perry and the emotional commitment of Moss are bolted down from the start. The rest of the film is similarly unflinching; just as Moss’ range is thrown from pillar to post, so genre gets toppled on its head to let fractured emotions through.
It may seems kitsch for a film to use form to locate itself, but Perry knows his influences, and decides to celebrate them rather than quell suggestions or comparisons. When was the last time you saw a title card come up accompanied by a copyright notice and the year in Roman numerals? It is there to invoke the period and genre Perry yearns to channel, namely the great female-led psychological dramas of the late 1960s and 1970s. By invoking the spirit of these films, Perry posits that films with such complexly traumatised women front and centre were better back then. He might be right, as they provide inspiration for a drama of blinding intensity. As Catherine repairs to the lake house owned by her friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston), her attempts to repair her fragile sense of self recall the broken women of Bergman’s Persona. Yet neither woman here is unable to talk; quite the opposite, in fact. Catherine’s fragility and Virginia’s standoffishness prove uneasy bedfellows. As Virginia tries to lead her usual routine, whilst hooking up with cocky neighbour Rich (Patrick Fugit), Catherine feels the lakeside setting growing more claustrophobic. The increasing tension recalls Altman’s 3 Women or Allen’s Interiors, with both women sniping for the sake of their own peace of mind. Virginia impatiently wants to help Catherine, but Catherine repeatedly speaks of her desire to be left alone. It’s a no-win situation ripe with drama and decidedly bitter repartee.
Queen of Earth is all about its two leading queens, and selling this pair of bitter pills are two actress working at the peak of their powers. Moss is creepily impressive, with the subtlest of eye flutters telling their own story. Her quietness invites us in, and makes her bolder statements all the more eerie (“I could murder you right now and no one would ever know”). It also marks her inevitable unbalancing all the more traumatic. In Waterston’s second ‘70s throwback in as many years (after Inherent Vice), she’s altogether more understandable, bringing a blend of concern and distant vexation to her terrific turn (“I love you more than anything, you stupid brat!”). Perry’s script, laced with this bitter flavour, comes with a healthy dose of black humour. Perry’s flirted with self-importance before (and arguably succumbed to it with his previous effort, Listen Up Philip), but his icy laughs and direction keep Queen of Earth from disappearing up itself. From slow zooms on emotional faces, to genre-nodding high and low angles, Queen of Earth fizzes with unpredictability.
Despite many visible influences, Perry smartly blends them to make Queen of Earth stand out as his own concoction. At first, the most notable touchstone might be Listen Up Philip. With this very different follow-up, Perry appears to have discovered how best to use the affectations of the purposefully unlikeable Philip. Besides Moss, both films also share key technical personnel. Sean Price Williams shoots proceedings once more on 16mm film, but it feels less like the work of an insistent hipster and more like an active evocation of those great female dramas of yore. Working at a similar pitch is Keegan DeWitt’s score, its French horns and wrenchenspiels recalling early Polanski and Carpenter. All these elements recall great works of the past, but by working in tandem they gift Queen of Earth verisimilitude. It’s too convincingly acted and sharply written to be dismissed as mere homage, and it’s sufficiently off-kilter to avoid being po-faced. While a few nods might be a little on the nose (A scene involving an animal jawbone recalls Blue Velvet far too readily), Queen of Earth is still its own beast, a quiet shriek of beautiful insanity.