by Josh Spanninga
Alex Ross Perry, writer/director of last year’s Listen Up Phillip further cements his status as up-and-coming-director-to-take-note-of with his latest release Queen of Earth. Both films use heavy sardonic dialogue and wit to cut to the bone, but while Listen Up Phillip did so in a darkly humorous way, Queen of Earth strives (and succeeds) to create an atmosphere far more unnerving.
The film begins in the midst of emotional turmoil - Catherine (Elizabeth Moss) is being dumped by her boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley), and to add insult to injury, all of this is happening in the wake of her father’s recent suicide. From the very first frames it’s clear that a disquieting tension is here, and it’s here to stay. In many ways Queen of Earth brings to mind the slow-burning psychological horror films of Roman Polanski, such as Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion. Scenes of drama and suspense are portrayed not through violence, but through sharp dialogue and nuanced performances. The viewer’s interest is hooked by this initial tension, a tension that only builds throughout the movie and leads to startling revelations and mental breakdowns.
The unsettling mood of the film is further accomplished by the use of a brooding, droning soundtrack. Synthesizers pulse in ambient and dreary waves, oftentimes to ratchet up senses of suspense and dread.
Of course all of this unease is contrasted by the setting: a beautifully furnished summer home nestled on a serene lake in the forest. The cinematography throughout is shot in 16 mm and is stone-cold gorgeous. Furthermore a swirling, elegant pink font used to mark the days in which the scenes take place bring an air of sophistication to the hostile undertones of the film.
The two main characters who inhabit this lush, beautiful scenery are the aforementioned Catherine and her friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston). Both women have a nasty superiority complex (Virginia even goes on a rant explaining that people who she deems “uninteresting” are not worth her time). Due to their inherent nature both characters have no problem speaking their minds and seem to almost enjoy spewing their thinly-veiled verbal venom at each other. This tension is perhaps best displayed in the scenes where Virginia poses as Catherine draws her portrait. As Catherine delicately sketches Virginia’s likeness on her easel they take turns taking indirect jabs at each other, pushing each other closer to the breaking point. While Catherine is capturing Virginia’s physical likeness on paper it’s as though she is also drawing out her narcissistic inner attributes as well.
Katherine Waterston does an excellent job of portraying her character Virginia in a subdued, detached manner. Of course the real show-stealer here is Elizabeth Moss, whose portrayal of Catherine’s descent into madness is cold, full of nuance and thoroughly convincing. Whether she’s compulsively crunching on potato chips or tucking herself into bed only to spend hours staring at the ceiling, there is always something “off” about Catherine. In one scene in particular Moss’s eyes scan the room after a confrontation, and as she breaks the fourth wall for a few precious seconds the unease the viewer feels at her sudden stare is enough to send chills down your spine.
While there are male characters in the film (such as Rich (Patrick Fugit), Virginia’s love interest who helps to further drive a wedge between Catherine and Virginia’s already deteriorating friendship) the film remains largely female-centric throughout. The men mostly tag along with the women, and are used largely as victims for insults to be hurled at and catalysts for disputes. It’s refreshing to see a film that so thoroughly seeks to focus on such thoroughly-developed female characters.
Of course one would be remiss to leave out the obvious comparisons that can be drawn between Queen of Earth and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Both films focus on two female leads resting at a summer home on the water, and both deal with themes of power struggles, grief and psychological illness. Furthermore both films rely on meticulously scripted dialogue and intense performances from the lead actors to hold the viewer’s interest. With Queen of Earth Alex Ross Perry carries on Polanski and Bergman’s tradition of exploring the human psyche by marrying stories of dark psychological turmoil with gorgeous cinematography. While the similarities are undeniable, Perry adds his own unique flourishes of social wit to create a world all his own. Perry is able to tip his hat at to influences while staying true to his own vision, an admirable and necessary trait for many quality directors. If this film is any indication of what Perry has cooking for future projects then this is one writer/director you’ll want to keep an eye on.
Queen of Earth screens at UICA from Sept 18—Oct 8, 2015, get a complete list of showtimes at uica.org/queen-of-earth.