Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)
Alex R. Perry Retro
“One day you will need me, and then I won’t be there for you.”
Long-time friends Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston) embark upon their annual retreat to Virginia’s parents’ country house on a lake, only to discover the emotional betrayals of one over the other reversing from the year before. Time melds, events parallel, young men invade their space, causing deeper resentments to fester… and the already emotionally fragile Catherine, dealing with her adored artist father’s recent suicide, slowly loses her grip on sanity.
While I was impressed enough by the biting humor and relaxed ambition of Perry’s debut feature, The Color Wheel (with the retro series screening four of his five features, in nicely accommodating chronological order) to overlook some of its more awkward almost student-esque qualities and allow myself to enjoy it, I wasn’t at all prepared to step into the grasp of this far more deeply accomplished effort. I have no idea about his second film Listen up Philip (the one that didn’t play), but, wow, did he develop as a filmmaker with this one.
Queen of Earth still has some (mostly black) humor throughout, but where Perry decided to reveal his (Woody Allen style) urbanite characters’ underlying pain and sense of emotional dislocation in The Color Wheel through clever banter and humorous situations that kept the audience relatively safe and distant, here he pares away the laughs; the emotional content remains similar (some of the dialogue and situations, with just a minor twist from Perry, could have played as uncomfortably funny as they do in The Color Wheel) but its the psychological darkness of the material he forwards this go-round.
Hearing Perry briefly speak about the film afterwards – specifically, it’s barely existent budget and woefully short shooting schedule – makes the formalistic and cinematic aesthetics achieved that much more impressive. It’s apparent that Perry is working from a cinephile perspective – and able to visualize that in ways both organic, yet reverential to a tradition he clearly admires.
While I didn’t stay for the whole Q&A (I rarely stay for those anymore… even if I like the filmmaker, I inevitably grow impatient at all the self-congratulatory indulgence and start to feel a growing compulsion to throw things at the stage), I was there long enough to hear Perry discuss a major influence of the film being Robert Altman’s Images… and while I haven’t seen that film, I’ve heard and read tons about its narratively and visually experimental style, made during that deceased director’s perhaps most fascinating phase, I wasn’t surprised at all… because, for me, the most obvious profound influences that Altman himself lists for his own work are on display in Queen of Earth.
From the setting of two emotionally connected females, swirling with deep resentments and co-dependency, where the desire to inflict hurt is as deeply ingrained as that for love, to the searching close-ups that often feel like a harrowing invasion of personal space, to the dialogue scenes that fall away from conversation and turn into hellishly painful soliloquies on emotional anguish at being alone and adrift (with the nine minute shot of the two looking forward, each lost in themselves and their own experiences even as they hear the other being a particularly wonderfully bravura example) and on into the little things, such as the piece of broken coffee cup that a distraught Catherine shattered that cuts Virginia’s finger (like the broken glass cutting Bibi Andersson’s bare foot as Liv Ullman cruelly smiles to herself), Queen of Earth is as connected to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona as a modern film can be. It may not descend into the sense of wild, quasi-avant-garde experimentation of that particular Bergman masterpiece, but Perry does play with time, more and more, as the film (and Catherine’s madness) progresses, hypnotically intercutting shots that fall away narratively, but manage to deeply unsettle as they remain emotionally relevant.
Katherine Waterston and Elisabeth Moss
Consistently capturing these upper class characters within door frames and the hardlines of the architecture of the house (as well as within close-ups) gives the sense of each of them imprisoned, alone. It’s Polanski-style (with the obvious examples being Knife in the Water and Repulsion, with a later scene that Catherine hallucinates of being surrounded by hands taken almost directly from the later horror film). Speaking of horror, the music resonates consistently (and surprisingly) with what feel like almost direct tonal riffs off right out of the grand score of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (and what daring to put together such an intimately scaled production with such grandiose ‘horror’ like music… it’s the daring few try, unless they’re really sure of their vision… and Perry comes across as being that). There’s also the use of ‘day cards’ right out of The Shining, going for the same effect of eventually having them represent the opposite of what they’re meant for… instead of narratively anchoring time, they ultimately create a sense of a loss of meaning for time/space, of what is the past and what is now… just another traditional effect Perry uses effectively to create unease.
While the film does feel a bit weighted down, somewhat stifled by all its influences (and perhaps the overtly intellectual approach of the director), Perry has enough to say (and confidence in his filmmaking) to keep it more than interesting… and the performances help elevate it further.
While the actors all are uniformly good (even the terribly unlikeable and insensitive Rich, played by Patrick Fugit, all grown up from his kid journalist role in the Rolling Stone film Almost Famous), it’s Moss who is awarded center stage and she’s great. I haven’t seen The Handmaid’s Tale series or anything else she’s been in, but her high-wire tightrope act here, balancing as it does between defensiveness and desperation, giggling then angry, then suddenly terrified, or sometimes all three at once, is fascinating to watch.
I could give two shits that she’s a Scientologist (hey, at least she isn’t returning her salary in faux outrage after starring in Woody Allen’s latest movie in a bid to fit into some latest movement, or – even worse — claiming love for war-mongering Hillary Clinton as some kind of feminine icon… all far more destructive sins to the state of the world).
It’s cinema we’re talking here; an art form with aspirations, in its highest form, to illuminate and speak of things. For an actor, it’s the performance and the presence that matters. I don’t need to be her best friend (or even like her). Moss gives all I need of her right up there on the screen, in Queen of Earth.