by Matt Levine
A surefire contender for best film of the year has already arrived in Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, a shapeshifting riddle that’s equal parts dazzling and haunting. At a remote lakeside home somewhere in New York, two old friends reunite: Catherine (Elisabeth Moss), who is still reeling from the near-simultaneous death of her father and a breakup with her boyfriend; and Virginia (Katherine Waterston), whose relatives own the house and who is all too content (as Catherine repeatedly reminds her) to laze around every day, relying on her family’s wealth. So maybe "old friends" isn’t the best way to describe them; “diametrically opposed forces of nature” might be more appropriate, their emotions (and our sympathies with them) shifting practically from scene to scene. That Queen of Earth allows two incredible actresses to dig their claws into meaty, perceptive roles—and adopts the chilling style of a psychological horror movie to boot—only scratches the surface of how complex and bewitching the movie is.
Film Society of Minneapolis/Saint Paul
Director: Alex Ross Perry
Producers: Elisabeth Moss, Alex Ross Perry, Adam Piotrowicz, Joe Swanberg
Writer: Alex Ross Perry
Cinematographer: Sean Price Williams
Editor: Robert Greene
Music: Keegan DeWitt
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley, Keith Poulson, Kate Lyn Sheil
Premiere: February 7, 2015 – Berlin International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: August 26, 2015
US Distributor: IFC Films
Queen of Earth is the fourth feature in six years by Alex Ross Perry, the New York-based writer/director whose 2009 debut, Impolex, was shot on 16mm film for about $15,000. Involving an American soldier in the wake of World War II, a German rocket discovered in a forest, and a talking octopus, Impolex displays a desire to buck traditional narrative norms, structured as it is around paradox and obfuscation (in this case, for better and worse). His follow-up, 2011’s The Color Wheel, stars Perry and Carlen Altman as siblings on a short road trip, and although the characters are often insufferable the black-and-white, claustrophobic camerawork and refusal to shy away from cultural taboos (like incest) at least presented a filmmaker whose iconoclastic leanings were only intensifying.
These first two features revealed a promising director willing and eager to take chances; his next two have introduced maybe the most audacious new voice in American movies, his penchant for obliqueness and oddity going hand-in-hand with his emotional sensitivity. I avoided seeing Listen Up Philip (2014) at first because its story and style seemed so predictable: Jason Schwartzman as an egomaniacal novelist, navigating the neurotic waters of Woody Allen-Noah Baumbach New York artists. After I finally saw the film, I regretted waiting so long; nothing is generic in Listen Up Philip, which is really as much about Philip’s embattled girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) and follows, in heartbreaking detail, one man’s life-defining descent into reclusive misanthropy. Now, with Queen of Earth, Perry has provided us with a skin-crawling pseudo-horror movie, a razor-sharp analysis of two very difficult characters, and what might be the most bright and beautiful movie of the year, courtesy of Sean Price Williams’ 16mm cinematography.
The first image introduces us to one of Perry’s favorite visual motifs: an immense close-up. The tear-streaked, wide-eyed face of Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) gazes offscreen at her boyfriend, who is in the midst of breaking up with her, citing their destructive codependency. We also learn that Catherine’s father, a celebrated New York artist for whom she served as personal assistant, has recently committed suicide, thus pushing Catherine even further into loneliness and depression. Perry’s ability with writing dialogue has vastly improved over the last several years, and actors of the caliber of Elisabeth Moss (or Jason Schwartzman in Listen Up Philip) ensure that the characters strike just the right balance of grating self-absorption and heartbreaking vulnerability.
Catherine is understandably at a personal crossroads and accepts her friend Virginia’s invitation to spend a few weeks (or more) at her family’s lakeside cabin somewhere in upstate New York. Ostensibly best friends, the gaping rift between Catherine and Virginia (Inherent Vice’s Katherine Waterston) is revealed before they even enter the front door: meeting on a dirt road a mile from the house, Virginia seems mystified by the fact that Catherine would prefer to walk instead of getting a ride. The tensions and miscommunications only expound from there: Virginia sees Catherine as spoiled and self-absorbed, using her recent tragedies as an excuse to demand attention, while Catherine sees Virginia as lazy and heartless, coasting by on her family’s wealth and avoiding meaningful relationships. Making matters worse is the next-door neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugit), who is casually sleeping with Virginia and shows up whenever he feels like it, perpetually wearing a smug and cocksure expression, seeming to delight in Catherine’s vulnerability.
The visual style of this emotional battleground is crucial in developing the characters’ tensions: Perry and Williams alternate between slow, steady zooms, handheld camerawork, dim artificial lighting and blistering sunlight to create an interplay of warmth and evil, harmony and dissonance. The architecture of the lake home is brilliantly utilized as an emotional tool: the shapes and lines of the stairs and doorways serve to separate and unite characters, whose movements are carefully orchestrated (one character disappears behind a wall while another suddenly materializes from beyond a glass door, for example). There is even repeated use of a diopter (a device which allows various planes to be in or out of focus in one frame, which only really works on celluloid, not digital video). In one incredible eight-minute take, Virginia and Catherine reveal meaningful anecdotes from their past, each actress conveying a multitude of hidden emotions to suggest people with full and unknown pasts; the camera sidles between them, always keeping them in close-up, ensuring that the weight of their words (and the skill of both Moss’ and Waterston’s performances) will not be lost on the audience.
Meanwhile, on the soundtrack, Keegan DeWitt’s eerie score seems to suggest that the fears and hatreds floating out there in the open have taken the form of ghosts and demons; the music resembles a drone-happy version of György Ligeti or Krzysztof Penderecki, two of Kubrick’s most oft-used composers. The editing by Robert Greene, too, is perfectly controlled, again using a set of contradictions: fluid dissolves mixed with abrasive jump-cuts, alternately suggesting that these characters are polar opposites or, in the end, not all that different. The examples of mind-boggling jump cuts are simply too frequent to enumerate (and I wouldn’t want to ruin the pleasure anyway). Simply put, it is a pleasure (ominous and discomfiting though it is) to witness a movie as carefully, intelligently composed as this one.
Queen of Earth takes pleasure in jumping around in time, shuttling between the present-day story and flashbacks to one year prior, when Catherine and her boyfriend Jake (Kentucker Audley) visited Virginia’s lakeside retreat. In these flashbacks, the situation has been reversed: it is Virginia suffering from a recent traumatic crisis (conveyed rather ambiguously, though it seems to have something to do with an abortion) while Catherine and Jake parade their affections in front of her, apparently basking in their contentment. Provocatively, at the chronological end of these flashbacks, Virginia semi-playfully accepts Catherine’s apology by saying hopefully in the future, Catherine will be distraught and depressed so Virginia can delight in her superiority—thus wreaking her sadistic emotional vengeance.
This is not an overt horror-movie plot—if anything, it suggests the realm of psychodrama—but Perry nevertheless chooses to adopt the conventions of the horror genre. In addition to DeWitt’s ominous score, there are suggestions of evil deeds committed offscreen by Virginia’s relatives (a groundskeeper tells Catherine they’re “terrible people”), an explicitly horrific scene in which Catherine imagine she’s mauled by people in garish makeup at a party (admittedly the movie’s weakest scene), even the days of the week written on the screen a la The Shining. While such an emphasis on horror encourages the audience to suspend their disbelief (played as straight drama, the film would be downright illogical), it also serves a character-driven purpose: Catherine is so affected by recent trauma, so deeply embroiled in a pit of despair and depression, that the entire world takes on the nightmarish quality of a horror movie. If that weren’t enough, Perry also indulges a few opportunities for dark comedy, especially in the testy interactions between Rich and Catherine. Unafraid to meld a number of different styles to make something entirely his own, Perry creates something scarier, funnier, and more emotional than a straightforward genre exercise would be, as though recognizing that life itself does not abide by a particular set of conventions.
All of this willful peculiarity—the self-conscious artiness of the cinematography, editing, and music, the refusal to flesh out certain parts of the narrative—might have been off-putting if it wasn’t wedded so intimately to the characters’ emotions. In fact, such attempts at maverick oddness seemed overly coy in Impolex and The Color Wheel, but Perry has matured to the point where his iconoclastic nature serves the narrative and the characters, rather than the other way around. He is clearly sympathetic towards Catherine, who is emotionally unstable yet receives basically no support from her supposed friends; but he also shows moments of compassion towards Virginia, who sometimes functions as a malevolent instigator for Catherine’s apparent madness. This ultimately is what makes Queen of Earth so powerful: it’s easy to be wowed by the aesthetic, but the movie’s perceptive study of lonely people trying to grapple with loss and loneliness brings you back to earth in devastatingly humane fashion.
Given the cowardice of Catherine’s ex-boyfriend Jake and the prancing arrogance of Rich, it’s tempting to label Queen of Earth a feminist fable about how men frequently try to control and manipulate the women around them. After all, in both the flashbacks and the present-day scenes, the tensions between Catherine and Virginia are brutally exacerbated by the men who come between them. One incredibly satisfying monologue in which Catherine accuses Rich of being the personification of all evil in the world depends partially on his sense of entitlement and power in being the only man in the room. But limiting one’s interpretation of Queen of Earth to this reading does it a disservice; the movie does not intend to provide a message or a sexual treatise. It’s altogether messier and more troublesome than that: Catherine’s turmoil comes at least partially from inside, and Virginia plays no small role in nourishing Catherine’s self-perceived dementia.
In a recent interview with Joyless Creatures, Perry claimed that the primary influences on Queen of Earth are not European arthouse films from the mid-twentieth century, but rather American exploitation films like Last House on the Left (1972). Even so, Queen of Earth bears undeniable similarities to the flexibility of identity in Bergman’s Persona, the juicy tête-à-tête from Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, or the claustrophobic dread of Polanski’s Repulsion, among others. Whatever the inspirations, it’s clear that Perry makes this hybrid his own, calling upon his incredibly talented actors and crew members to create something both stylish and uncommonly sensitive. Essentially a horror movie about extreme states of mental distress, Queen of Earth is both an aesthetic and a humanist masterpiece. It all ends with a final freeze-frame that throws everything into disarray, providing the hint of an answer while posing a hundred new questions—a laughing face foregrounded against the sky, distorted by joy, misery, desperation, and terror, a perfect metaphor for the audience’s own experience.