Queen of Earth — Variations on a Theme
Not quite a psychological thriller, not quite a drama, not quite the acerbic dark comedy its writer-director excels at, Queen of Earth, Alex Ross Perry’s fourth indie feature, is a rough character study with the abrasive tension and claustrophobic atmosphere of a thriller. Notwithstanding superb acting from its two female leads, Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, and judicious cinematographic and sound choices, the whole does not quite come together: Perry’s own voice is notoriously absent from a film that very much feels like a pastiche.
In Queen of Earth, Catherine (Moss) retreats to her best friend’s family lake house in Upstate New York after her father, a prominent New York artiste, commits suicide and her boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), breaks up with her. Her mental disintegration is chronicled over a week with frequent flashbacks to the previous summer when Catherine and James led seemingly happier lives while Virginia (Waterston), her lonely and miserable best friend, took the metaphorical jab at the couple: “you seem cripplingly codependent.”
Now, a year later, they swap roles and Catherine, alone and on the verge of a nervous breakdown, partakes in mutual loathing with Virginia and Rich (Patrick Fugit), Virginia’s neighbor and on-off boyfriend. The situation mirrors the previous summer only in appearance as tensions were already high between Catherine and Virginia, and the seeds of discontent subtly planted between Catherine and James.
We are often left to wonder how it is that Catherine and Virginia are friends. In one particular flashback scene, Virginia warns Catherine not to be naive for “enemy is the only word.” Their friendship feels awfully phony at times what with Catherine’s frequent lashing out and fake phone conversations with James, and Virginia’s eavesdropping and mockery. Yet the paradox of Queen of Earth is in the collision of two identical and emotionally crippled friends who know where it hurts the most.
At once subtle and uncompromising, complex and unrestrained but never maudlin, Moss gives arguably the best performance of her career yet. Her Catherine is ambivalent and unreadable throughout. Her bone-chilling, bilious diatribe against Rich — ”you animal … you unrepentant piece of shit … you are why there’s nowhere safe or happy anymore. You are why depression exists” — is a fine-tuned tour de force that would have surely fallen flat in amateur hands: Moss powerfully channels Catherine’s bitterness and anger without ever loosing control; her delivery adds depth to Perry’s weak script.
Waterston, a Mona Lisa-like figure with penetrating ice-cold gaze, underplays her performance to give Moss the creative room she needs. Her presence is no less haunting though.
Sean Price Williams departs from earlier Perry movies with the use of both handheld and still shots. His handheld camerawork is notably more polished here than in the sometimes dizzying Listen Up Philip, Perry’s third feature. Williams’ suffocating face close-ups echo Catherine’s mental anguish and impending breakdown. In a single-shot monologue scene, the camera travels back and forth to close-ups of Catherine and Virginia as each tell their breakup story. The out of focus middle space is an elegant and harsh metaphor for their disconnect. The shot, perhaps a subtle and distant variation on Bergman’s trademark overlapping faces, bears the hallmarks of Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra Van Kant.
In the closing sequence, Catherine has left her room, now all tidied up, and the portrait of Virginia she had been working on is on display. Virginia bursts into tears moments after she enters the room and sees the portrait. Yet we are barely allowed to witness the moment as Robert Greene immediately cuts to Catherine hysterically laughing by the lake. Greene’s offbeat editing heightens a tension brought to its apex by William’s cinematography and Moss’ and Waterston’s performances. So do Keegan DeWitt’s dissonant, atonal score and Ryan Price’s invasive sound editing, reminiscent of Bergman’s Persona, where every ambient sound is amplified to obsessive proportions.
Perry has acknowledged Fassbinder and Altman as inspirations. One can surely also see references to Bergman’s Persona and Polanski’s The Tenant. Yet, despite its remarkable acting and technical aptitude, Queen Of Earth’s center does not hold for Perry owes too much to other filmmakers and drowns the film in nods and variations leaving us to wonder: Alex Ross Perry, who are you?
Perry is urged to find his own voice. Even his legendary expertise in creating unlikable characters fails here: I somehow managed to like Catherine.