“I don’t want you to see me like this,” says Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) framed in a tight, invasive close-up. In this opening scene to Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth, Catherine has just found out that her boyfriend is seeing someone else. There is talk of an incident that claimed the life of her father. How long after this traumatic event did he begin his affair, she wonders? “Before,” he says.
In his follow-up to last year’s bristlingly funny Listen Up Philip, in which a cranky Jason Schwartzman played a writer seeking artistic success at the expense of everyone around him, writer-director Alex Ross Perry further demonstrates his tremendous talent and not-for-everyone sensibility. But the new film ditches the comic New York Story vibe of Philip for an unsettling, Dark Night of the Soul one. The two share a lead actress in Elizabeth Moss, and, again, her performance is the best part. For all its memorable scenes, the best moment in Philip came after its eponymous writer paid Moss’ Ashley an unwelcome visit. When she finally got him to leave, Perry held on Moss’ face for a solid forty seconds as it registered anger, sadness, and grief in quick succession. Ashley, like Catherine, doesn’t want to be seen like this, and Queen of Earth pokes and prods at this desire to control one’s emotional and physical space.
Queen takes place at an idyllic lakeside cabin, which has been made available to Catherine by her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston). It’s Virginia’s rich family’s house, and she says she can come up anytime she wants. “Oh really? So, Memorial Day? Fourth of July?” Catherine says sarcastically, not buying the generosity Virginia is selling. Pretty soon neighbor boy Rich (Patrick Fugit) starts showing up. Virginia is hooking up with him—he seems cool enough as he sweetly offers Catherine coffee in the morning—but he hangs around a little more than Catherine would like, and it’s beginning to get on her nerves. The tension escalates, and it seems to set off a kind of domino effect in Catherine’s mind. She doesn’t want some dude hanging around, she needs her best friend to be there for her. But Virginia doesn’t seem to give a shit, and their constant bickering begs the question whether they’re actually friends at all.
That’s about all I can say about the plot of Queen of Earth; it’s a story that is at once bizarre and incredibly simple. Alex Ross Perry has sighted Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and John D. Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971) as inspirations, and these influences are certainly apparent. A climactic party scene openly recalls the former as Catherine’s paranoia is depicted with a subjective camera and a barrage of arms pushing her to the floor as she screams, “Leave me alone!” Since the film is narratively opaque, and about two women in a psychological tailspin at a remote cabin, it also inevitably recalls Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. At the Q&A after the screening I attended, Perry refuted this observation claiming, “Ingmar Bergman has nothing to do with this movie.” It’s true that upon close examination, Queen has none of the metaphysical artiness of Persona, its ambitions are decidedly more down to earth. But, for me, the association made me expect something deeper, perhaps supernatural, under the surface. Nope, Queen of Earth seems to simply be about two women being pretty shitty to each other. Bummer.
Even though the conclusion may ultimately be unsatisfying, the film remains a testament to Alex Ross Perry’s tremendous talents as a director, and his knack for assembling one hell of a team. He’s like the Tom Waits of directors—even if his voice isn’t your cup of tea, the all-star band will give you something to listen to. The greens and browns of upstate New York are beautifully rendered with the help of cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who shot in the director’s favored 16mm format. The haunting score by Keegan Dewitt (who also provided the lovely Kind of Blue-esque jazz score of Listen Up Philip), and the jaggedly unpredictable editing by Robert Greene (director of the fantastic Actress ) add up to a near masterpiece of creepy ambience. It’s meticulously calculated to evoke a feeling of unease and anxiety as we are seduced into the psyche of the tortured protagonist. It becomes impossible to predict what will happen next, and it becomes exhilarating to find out. That Perry balances this portentousness with a sense of humor further demonstrates his impeccable control of tone. One night, Catherine wanders into the woods and finds a stranger passed out drunk. She invites him in and makes him a cup of hot water. As she stares with a crazy look in her eyes, she says, “I could murder you right now and no one would know.”
Queen of Earth is anchored by two brilliant performances from Elizabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston. Following her out-of-nowhere turn as the nebulous hippie-turned-straight-girl of Inherent Vice, Waterston is quickly becoming a go-to for characters who hold multitudes inside. Her presence is mysterious and entrancing, and it works perfectly opposite Moss’ anxiety-ridden Catherine. Moss can barely contain her emotions—even when she’s calm, it looks like she could burst at any moment. Together, their chemistry comes across like sisters more than friends, and they elevate the film from shallow genre exercise to fascinating character study. For those already privy to Alex Ross Perry’s idiosyncratic, movie-nerd sensibility, you’ll find a whole lot to like in Queen of Earth; even if it doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts, its parts are pretty mesmerizing.