Queen of Earth
Director & Screenplay: Alex Ross Perry / Editing: Robert Greene / DP: Sean Price Williams / Music: Keegan DeWitt
Cast: Elisabeth Moss / Katherine Waterston / Patrick Fugit / Kentucky Audley
A Week in the Life…
Of the Oxford English Dictionary’s two definitions of the word ‘Fugue’, it’s the latter that best sums-up Catherine, Elisabeth Moss’s character in Queen of Earth: ‘A state or period of loss of awareness of one’s identity, often coupled with flight from one’s usual environment’.
I can’t do better, though it would be selling the film miserably short to end it there.
Alex Ross Perry is one of that dwindling breed of Writer-Directors, possessing an intelligent, insightful sensibility, who are able to get their films made (as opposed to being kicked from one producer to another). His ‘secret weapon’, aside from the obvious quality of his writing? That neither Perry or long-term DP Williams, have forgotten the virtues of shooting in ‘cheap’ 16mm and using a single location, over the course of a short, intensive shoot. Oh, and the value of a sensitive, bespoke score; in this case, presented by Keegan DeWitt.
Perry first came to my attention with an older release on Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label Listen Up Philip (2013) in which, if I recall, Jason Schwartzman played a pretentious literary figure opposite Jonathan Pryce. It’s unusual for MoC to list not just one, but a pair of such recent titles – and from the same director, no less. As a result, I went into Queen with high expectations; history will record that not all were fulfilled…
Perry opens his account with an unflattering close-up of a mascara-smudged Moss as Catherine; a woman reacting to her (unseen) boyfriend, James, who’s breaking-up with her; this, shortly after her father (a prominent NYC artist, for whom she worked as his PA) has committed suicide. It’s an effective opener, to lay-bare Catherine’s raw vulnerability. It doesn’t matter that James isn’t seen; Perry understands that for him to be visible would only detract from the ‘anguish-buffet’ that Catherine’s serving-up. This is her film. Her misery. More powerful then, to have Moss channel Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and put it all out there. Casual viewers are either going to stick with it after this bold statement of intent, or announce an impromptu trek to IKEA: anything but sit through ninety minutes of someone else’s misery…
Yet this would be to miss a powerful, almost voyeuristic intrusion into grief. Besides, this wailing is only a preamble that sets-up Catherine’s purpose in visiting her ‘best friend’ Virginia (a steely-eyed emotional assassin played by Katharine Waterston) at an airy lakeside house, owned by Virginia’s parents. Perry is quick to set-out his film’s pitch: the story will now play-out over seven chapters, each named after a day in the week of Catherine’s stay. We begin, with her arrival on Sunday.
Over the week, we’ll have the privilege of watching Moss take us on a whistle-stop tour of her considerable emotional range; she’s the real deal as an actress, able to both access and convey deep emotional pain & truth for the camera. From early cameos in The West Wing (as the President’s daughter) and a variety of low-key indie pictures, she made an impact with a long stint on the Mad Men TV-series, using that as a springboard to move into producing shows as well as acting (as here). Currently, she’s got the lead in an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s chilling Sci-Fi dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s a measure of Moss’s respect for Perry’s vision & writing, that she chose to work so quickly with him after Listen and get involved as co-producer (though the short schedule will have been hard to resist).
From the evocative ‘Panda-eyed’ ruin of the opening, Catherine arrives at the house in generally good spirits, along with her portable easel and an intention to paint Virginia’s portrait. Soon, however, the two women are sniping at each other, with a passive-aggression stemming from Catherine’s visit a year earlier, that she’d made along with James. At the time (and seen in flashbacks scattered throughout the film), she and James (Kentucker Audley) made a cloyingly infatuated couple, that left Catherine unable to devote her attention to Virginia. There’s unresolved resentment there, as we now learn that Virginia was going through a difficult emotional patch of her own.
Fast-forward a year to the present and the roles are reversed.
Virginia has begun a low-key (though sexual) relationship with a neighbour’s son, Rich (a very effective Patrick Fugit, who I last saw in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous (2000)). To complicate things, Virginia has omitted to mention this to Catherine, who’s startled to see this stranger in her friend’s house. She & James actually met him during the last visit, but Catherine has no memory. Although Rich isn’t living with Virginia (‘Only closest friends call me Ginny’), he’ll play the role of antagonist to Catherine as the week unfolds, making snide comments on her privileged position and consequent lack of personal achievement. In that role, Rich will make few concessions to Catherine’s recent emotional traumas and the impact of his words, on her emotional, nay psychological frailties.
In other words, Rich makes sport out of pushing Catherine’s buttons; a pursuit barely checked by Virginia who, at-times, seems happy for him to torment her friend as if in some exaggerated ‘pay-back’ for the lack of support a year earlier.
Catherine’s mental state deteriorates as the week unfolds. Perry uses an untouched bowl of green salad in her room to convey the idea of frailty & decay; as the leaves curl & brown, so decays Catherine’s sense of self; of things losing their order. She takes to wearing her nightdress during the day. She complains of an undiagnosed facial ache. She throws a coffee-cup into the lake then grins sheepishly at Virginia on being caught in the act. Then there’s the ‘imaginary’ man she finds sleeping in a bush, to whom she murmurs ‘I could murder you right now and no-one would ever know’.
Things come to a head a day or two later, when Virginia hosts a party, attended by a clutch of ‘arty’ people, some of whom knew of Catherine’s late father and his association with a scandal of sorts. Their enquiries gnaw at Catherine’s psyche, leaving her pawing-away imaginary hands from her face. She comes-to, realises where she is and scuttles away on hands & knees, like a beast ‘unfit’ to be seen in ‘civilised company’. It’s a powerful scene but throughout, I kept wondering if Virginia was complicit in some way, by inviting all these people in the expectation that her friend might ‘lose it’. The notion isn’t in the writing, but suggested in the set-up.
Queen is one of those films ‘found’ in the improvisation of gesture & interaction; tricks as intrinsic to Perry’s M.O., as to a film-maker such as Mike Leigh. If Perry were to merely shoot the script as-written, his films would undoubtedly lack the spontaneity shown in such exchanges & Catherine’s descent into Crazy Town might not be as marked…
The film’s climax comes on ‘Thursday’ when, during dinner, Rich asks a string of awkward questions culminating in ‘How’s Virginia’s portrait coming along? Just think of all the press you’re going to get, emerging from tragedy with such an accomplished canvas!’ This is the trigger for Catherine to deliver a near three-minute monologue. In measured, even tones, she reels off a brutally honest statement that’s savage in its verbose intensity and leaves both Rich & Virginia gaping in its wake – and Catherine, almost elated, as if she’s Crossed A Rubicon of the mind. From this point on, she’s either lost – or healed…
Sure enough, Virginia enters Catherine’s room next morning as if braced for confrontation: but everything’s been tidied up & squared-away – even the salad! – but of Catherine, there’s no sign. All that she left behind, is the now-finished portrait. On seeing it, Virginia begins to sob, at which point Perry cuts to a shot of Catherine laughing, almost maniacally, to herself. It’s a clever juxtaposition of images – of sentiments – perhaps to show how close the expression of one emotion is to the other. What I DON’T think we’re seeing, is a ‘healed’ Catherine. The film’s been too tricky in the way it parses its narrative, to be so explicit at the death.
Besides, Perry enjoys making oblique statements. Of seeding his films (at least, those I’ve seen), with non sequiturs or touches that one imagines have meaning but which, in the end, probably don’t. They exist to be seen – to be noticed – but little more. There’s something of Bergman’s work here, in Perry’s stripped-down cast & single location; Persona (1966), for example, in which a mute patient and her nurse circle each other in a psychological duel.
Perry & DP WIlliams, also favour off-kilter setups to break-up the static frame: I’ll give you two examples. First, a split-frame showing a kitchen at LHS and, at RHS, Catherine’s first-floor bedroom, from a shot on the landing; both locations remaining in-focus. Second, Catherine is sat in a canoe, but shot low-down, from a spot on the jetty, so only her head’s visible; a great image, that one.
And, perhaps, it’s image – or the lack of substance – that lays at the heart of my reservations over the film. That it looks good, is a given. The house shoots well, responds to subtle lighting and acts as an effective silent witness to Catherine’s unflinching, unnerving breakdown. But the film’s characters verge on being unrelatable. They come from privilege. They will go on being privileged, using their family’s wealth (not their own) to insulate them from the wider problems of the world. Throughout the film, I kept thinking of how this scenario might’ve panned-out, had the principals come from a working-class background. Would they have been so self-pitying? So indulgent of each other’s moods or hang-ups? Unlikely!
That’s why I found it all so un-relatable: because while I appreciated the character revelation on-screen, I never felt part of that world. I was only ever peering-in, like I had my nose pressed-up against its window. Consider this: Rich is keen to call-out Catherine’s privileged status, as having been attained through nepotism, yet he’s the son of an equally privileged clan, able to afford the summer house next door! Neither does he appear to have an occupation of his own, so what makes him so superior?
To this critic at least, it all seems as if Perry’s reached the end of the road with Queen. To repeat the same trick from here, would be the safe option. No, Perry needs a bigger budget and a bigger idea, if he’s ever to put ‘mumblecore’ behind him and make pictures that really drag him out of his comfort zone and test him as both writer & director.
A Master of Cinema then? Not yet, if his subsequent films are any guide.
I saw this effort. This textile representation of his feelings and I… I thought it was something real and it wasn’t. It was trite and cliché and fatuous.