Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Movie Review: Queen of Earth

Queen of Earth
Directed by: Alex Ross Perry.
Written by: Alex Ross Perry.
Starring: Elisabeth Moss (Catherine), Katherine Waterston (Virginia), Patrick Fugit (Rich), Kentucker Audley (James), Keith Poulson (Keith), Kate Lyn Sheil (Michelle), Craig Butta (Groundskeeper), Daniel April (Warlock).

Queen of Earth is about two female friends – Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and Ginny (Katherine Waterston) who perhaps don’t really like each other anymore. The film mainly takes place over a week in the countryside home of Ginny`s family, where she has invited Catherine to stay for a little while as she tries to get over the twin blows of losing her father to suicide, and her boyfriend to a breakup. To make matters worse, her father was a famous artist, who employed Catherine as his assistant – she says she is an artist herself, but just how good she is open for debate. Throughout the week, Ginny pushes all of Catherine`s buttons – driving her further and further towards madness, which was never really Ginny’s intention. She just wanted revenge on Catherine for the previous summer, when she needed Catherine there to support her, and instead she brought her boyfriend along on their girl’s week to the same summer house. Ginny is doing the same thing to Catherine this year – inviting her neighbor (Patrick Fugit) over all the time, although he is openly hostile to Catherine. It’s only in the third act where it becomes clear to Ginny that perhaps she has pushed Catherine too far – or more accurately, Catherine isn’t strong enough to deal with the same pain Ginny did the previous summer.

There are several things that keep Queen of Earth from being a cheesy melodrama. The first is the performances by Moss and Waterson (and Fugit, really). Moss did great work for years on Mad Men and in recent years has been delivering a series of strong performances in indie movies like The One I Love and Listen Up Philip (for the same director as Queen of Earth – Alex Ross Perry). This is probably her best film work to date. Perry loves to keep his camera in close on Moss face – opening with a close up of Catherine in the throes of emotional upheaval – raccoon eyes from tears, arguing with her boyfriend who stays in the background. It is, oddly, perhaps the most outward emotion Moss will show in the whole movie – from there on out, she doesn’t let her guard down quite so much, trying in vain to cover up her descent into madness – especially around other people, where she has a tendency to come off as stuck up, rather than sick. For her part, Waterson is just as good as Ginny – and doesn’t have the same kind of showcase role as Moss does. She really does remain quiet through much of the film – so much so, you can argue that what she does to Catherine isn’t intentional (but I'd disagree with that). She pushes Catherine's buttons expertly – and it’s only in the third act (where Waterson does her finest work) when she realizes just how far she has pushed her friend.

The other thing that sets Queen of Earth apart from other melodrama is the fact that Perry shoots the film almost like a horror film. The obvious inspiration is Roman Polanski's 1965 masterpiece Repulsion, with Catherine Deneuve alone in her apartment slowly going insane for reasons that are only hinted at throughout the film.  Others will be reminded of Ingmar Bergman's Persona, where two women, alone on an island, push each other. Persona isn’t really a horror movie – but, Perry, like Bergman, isn’t afraid of using some genre stylistic elements in his film.

Queen of Earth is a film that is deeply unsettling, as we know more than anyone in the movie just how far gone Catherine is – and we are waiting for her to completely snap (what form that will take, we do not know). Perry continues to grow as a filmmaker – or at least experiment. Listen Up Philip last year was very much a comedy in the Woody Allen vein (although more misanthropic than even Allen gets). Now he does a Roman Polanski inspired thriller and melodrama. Both are much better than his debut, The Color Wheel, an 80 minute exercise in navel gazing that had one of the best endings of any movie I've ever seen, which saved the movie. He remains a filmmaker whose next film I cannot wait to see.

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