For those who have been following the career of 31-year-old filmmaker Alex Ross Perry, Queen of Earth is in many ways the film that we were expecting/hoping he would deliver: a movie that establishes him as an auteur. Right out of the gate, his super low-budget film Impolex (2009) established Perry as an unabashed cinephile with its heavy concepts and clear influences (Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Vincent Gallo, etc.), just perhaps not with the prowess he desired. Then, last year saw the release of his film Listen Up Philip, which was, at that point, his most high profile project. The film was met largely with critical acclaim, yet ultimately it was still a bit derivative to mark him as an auteur. With Queen of Earth (which premiered at The Berlin Film Festival last January), Perry has given us a stark and mesmerizing film that comes off as his own concoction, even if it may still be chiefly an homage.
The story centers around Catherine (Elisabeth Moss, who also starred in “Listen Up Philip” and holds a producer credit for this film), a distraught woman who recently had a tumultuous falling out with her boyfriend and has suffered the loss of her father. Hoping to find tranquility after her rough year, she travels with her close friend Ginny to a cabin near the Hudson river. Here, we see Catherine’s state grow increasingly tense and bizarre, especially as the narrative uses flashbacks to show Catherine and Ginny’s trip to this cottage a year ago when Ginny was having a similar plight.
Queen of Earth is a film that wears its influences on its sleeves, as it is basically a deliberate pastiche to early Roman Polanski, Ingmar Bergman, and other art house psychological thrillers that arose from the post-war period. One may notice that the film’s year is kept ambiguous – we don’t see characters use devices like cell phones or laptops – suggesting that Perry might have felt that giving his film a contemporary setting would be rueful (even the film’s trailer has an anachronistic presentation to it). Still, the film’s themes surrounding duality, negligence, and depression are universal and resonate beyond any retro aesthetic that one might find gimmicky.
Queen of Earth is a kaleidoscope of a film that asks viewers to really work to deserve a pay-off. There are repeated images and motifs throughout the film that at first may seem obscure, but then in retrospect become illuminating. Why did Ginny give Catherine a plate of salad? What’s to make of the piece of an animal skeleton that Catherine found? Why do we sometimes find Catherine blithely laughing to herself, amidst her dyspepsia? As previously established in Perry’s earlier films, the director takes a rather novel-esque approach to writing his scripts, which is clear in Queen of Earth‘s symbolism. The pieces are all there, it’s just that they require assembly, which happens over time. The film is highly nonlinear; the order of events is difficult to parse, thus blurring the two summers that the film covers. It’s a tactic that’s been used for ages in novels, but not as frequently in cinema.
Perry also wisely uses some unconventional filming techniques to add to the film’s mystique. Often, he’ll let the camera wander in directions you wouldn’t expect, and for lengthy periods of time. A great example of this comes from a long take where Catherine and Ginny are discussing their past histories with men, and while another director may rely on cross-cutting for this scene, Perry proves far too intelligent a filmmaker for that. Instead, he lets his camera waver between the two leads (all while Keegan DeWitt’s haunting minimalist score plays), often concentrating on the one that is listening rather than talking, and eliciting some diminutive (but pivotal) facial tics. The result is nothing less than dreamlike, and consequently nightmarish.
Acting-wise, the film is a marvel too. Elisabeth Moss once again proves she’s one of the most precious American actresses, with a leading performance both disturbing and human. While, yes, the film chiefly explores her deteriorating state, we also see her at times expressing optimism and joy. This makes her threatening monologues all the more terrifying, especially as we become less and less sure of what she is capable of doing. Katherine Waterston, (who made a striking breakthrough performance last year in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Pynchon adaptation Inherent Vice), gives an airy performance here that is more subdued than Moss’ but concisely aligned too. Against these two actresses is Patrick Fugit, who plays a bro-ish neighbor who is seemingly Ginny’s lover and is clearly the film’s representation of “man.” Perry keeps his true reason for being there a mystery, but Fugit’s character imparts an acidic influence on Catherine’s troubled state, which in turn results in the film’s most memorable conflict.