Queen of Earth

Queen of Earth ★★★★

Part of Hoop-Tober 2015

“What?” “I literally didn’t say anything.” “Exactly.”

“What’s it like, having all the answers all the time to everything?” asks Virginia (Katherine Waterston) of Catherine (Elisabeth Moss), her ostensible best friend, during a summer trip to Virginia’s family’s lake house in upstate New York. It calls to mind a similar statement (for Virginia’s words, though structured syntactically as interrogation, are unmistakably declarative) made to Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) in James L. Brooks’ wonderful romantic comedy-drama Broadcast News: “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room.” Yet the difference in response is illuminating—Jane bemoans that it is awful, confirming her boundless self-confidence but diluting it with self-awareness and some approximation of empathy, while Catherine replies that it’s wonderful, meeting lacerating snark in kind. One might question whether Virginia and Catherine actually like each other at all—or whether either of them is capable of liking anyone, themselves included.

It is only fitting to begin a discussion of writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth with a reference to some other prior work evoked thereby. While Perry’s caustic tale is starkly written and terrifically acted, it constantly threatens to collapse under the weight of pastiches and nods and homage. Repeated shots of a wilting salad on Catherine’s nightstand bring to mind the decaying rabbit carcass metaphorically representing Catherine Deneuve’s deteriorating mental state in Repulsion. The blurred psychological and emotional lines between Catherine and Virginia recall Persona and 3 Women. De facto split screen compositions shot from a landing, revealing action both up- and downstairs, evoke any number of De Palma films. Indeed, in a recent interview with the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Perry and Moss name-checked (in chronological order) Knife in the Water, Carnival of Souls, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Images, The Bitter Tears of Petra van Kant, and A Woman Under the Influence as sources of inspiration. And of course any seasoned moviegoer will quickly spot similarities to a whole array of pictures about troubled women, from scuzzy fare like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? to artier films like Interiors.

Polanski, Bergman, Fassbinder, Cassavetes, Altman, De Palma—these are heavy forebears for any film, and at times Queen of Earth does not wear the comparison as flatteringly as Perry might hope (particularly in a late-film nightmare party sequence ripped straight from Rosemary’s Baby's Satanic orgy). Yet Queen of Earth—which tells the story of Catherine’s mental breakdown while spending a week at the lake house with Virginia (and, sometimes, her neighbor/love interest, Rich (Patrick Fugit))—succeeds far more often than it fails, successfully conjuring the whole of 1970s cinema (both exploitative and high-minded) on the backs of terrific editing, a haunting score, and tremendous acting from its lead performers.

Part of Queen of Earth’s success rests on the (exceedingly dark) humor sprinkled throughout, adding texture and dimension to the near-constant anguish on display. Opening on an extreme close-up of Catherine’s face as she is dumped by her boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), one cannot help but notice the resemblance to a clown—pale, red-nosed, heavy black eye makeup running under an avalanche of tears, Catherine looks like a devastated Emmett Kelly. The contrast is only enhanced by Catherine’s emotions, which run so high that one cannot help but laugh to cut through the overheated tension.

Similar moments appear throughout the film: Virginia offers Catherine—hiding in her room—a salad with all the affection of a DMV employee nearing a break (“I made this salad for you. It’s good. You should eat it.”). Rich responds to Catherine’s excuse for not remembering him from the previous summer, that she is “not good with faces or names,” with a withering, “So, like, people?” Catherine tells Keith (Keith Poulson), a neighbor passed out from too much drink across whom she stumbles during a midnight sojourn, “I could murder you right now and no one would ever know,” a terrifying pixie-ish smile crawling across her face. Out canoeing with Virginia and Rich, Catherine sits on the floor of the canoe in a lifejacket while Rich and Virginia sit on the seats, towering over her and wearing no safety gear, leaving the impression of Catherine as a sullen child stuck on her parents’ outing and none too happy about it. The humor is never less than acidic and bleak, arising not from punchlines but from tone, enriching Perry’s film immensely.

Perry fleshes out the contours of Catherine’s troubled psyche with dribbles of knowledge (Catherine’s father, a well-known artist and her employer, recently committed suicide, followed closely by the breakup) and with flashbacks to the prior summer, when Catherine and James spent a week at the lake house with Virginia under, if not happier circumstances, then at least slightly more stable ones. The reliability, or even the source, of these flashbacks is questionable—Perry and editor Robert Greene cut to them without warning, often entering them from the perspective of either Virginia or Catherine apparently lost in troubled thought and then exiting them with a cut to the other character similarly pre-occupied, suggesting a shared headspace (or at least shared emotional trauma). What they do consistently show is that the tense interactions between the friends are nothing new—both women were as biting and cruel toward one another then as now, with Virginia contemptuous of Catherine’s relationship with James and Catherine hostile toward Virginia’s willingness to live off of her wealthy family’s largesse.

While Perry plays up the reversal of roles as key to Catherine’s breakdown (Virginia, recently coming off of an unspecified ordeal last summer but now with something of a boyfriend, while Catherine suffers the twin loss of the men in her life), one cannot help but feel that the seeds of mental instability were there long ago. Virginia and Rich separately diagnose Catherine as overly dependent on others (chiefly men) for her sheen of competence, ill-equipped to deal with the ravages of loss on her own, and it is hard to say they are wrong, especially as Catherine grows increasingly unhinged, imagining ghoulish attackers and speaking on the phone to a dial-tone. (One of Perry’s cleverest allusions, in a film drowning in them, is to have Catherine find and take back to the cottage what appears to be a donkey’s jawbone—widely thought to be the weapon of Cain, the first murderer, and the tool of Samson, famed loser of strength, in the killing of a thousand Philistines, suggesting that Catherine might have ideas for Rich, a philistine of her own.) Yet Catherine has turned to Virginia for care, not cruelty. Whether Virginia is being deliberately unsupportive (perhaps as retribution for Catherine’s coldness the prior summer) or is simply incapable of displaying anything more than icy self-involvement is an open question, one that Perry toys with throughout.

Moss and Waterston are both remarkable, not only in their naturalistic wielding of Perry’s highly unnatural dialogue, but in the things they don’t say—the facial expressions, the glances, the shifts in posture. Perry knows this, training his camera more often on the listener than on the speaker, surveying Virginia’s smug smiles at Catherine’s psychological decay and Catherine’s (frequently quixotic) attempts to beat back her sense of anger and betrayal. Queen of Earth never satisfactorily suggests why these horrible women have a relationship—the flashbacks to last summer draw in yet more knowing citation like Shakespeare’s notion that, “What’s past is prologue,” and Faulkner’s famous line that, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” But these merely add to the immense weight of Perry’s many inspirations, threatening to rob Queen of Earth of its own identity and render it less a fully realized work and more an exemplary-but-scattered homage to...well, most everything. The most compelling reason for the existence of the Catherine-Virginia dyad is inertia, like a long-married couple drifted into antipathy but too cozy in their mutual hatred to try anything new. This jibes with Catherine’s insistence that she has been abandoned by the only two people who loved her—a list comprising James and her father, but notably not Virginia, her supposed best friend. Yet it does not fit well with Catherine’s pregnant-with-meaning look at Virginia when she says she wants to spend time with the few decent people remaining in the world, not with the likes of Rich. There is a purposeful ambiguity to how close Virginia and Catherine really are or have become that at times drifts from tantalizing to muddled, especially when the specters of more insightful films like Persona and 3 Women are constantly lurking around the edges.

But whatever it may lack comparatively, Queen of Earth is a captivating experience moment-to-moment, thanks in no small part to tremendous performances. Moss is a powerhouse, layering Catherine with arrogance and insecurity, anger and confusion, and an overwhelming woundedness that yields compassion even as she behaves terribly. Matching her is Waterston, portraying Virginia as a woman of just as much contempt and hostility as Catherine, but more accustomed to the loneliness that comes from approaching life as a zero-sum game. Virginia’s smug self-satisfaction at the disintegration of Catherine’s formerly composed façade, expertly evinced by Waterston’s sly half-smiles, gives way to something midway between fear and concern (if for no one other than herself), while Catherine, unable to handle the absence of an emotional safety net, finds depression sapping any energy other than to lash out or dissolve in self-pity. If only either of them (or anyone else in Perry’s claustrophobic world) could communicate to the other plainly, rather than through obfuscation and oblique passive-aggression, perhaps they could find the stability they so desire.

In the end, this seems perhaps the clearest throughline among Perry’s disparate inspirations: That communication is key to survival. Over and over, the word “exactly” is used not as a clarifying response but as an obscuring riposte (“I couldn’t sleep.” “It’s so quiet out here!” “Exactly.” / “What” “I literally didn’t say anything.” “Exactly.” / “Be careful now, you never know.” “You never know what?” “Exactly.”). Catherine refers to the “self-perpetuating cycle of defeat” out of which one cannot get because one cannot get out of it—perfectly capturing the cyclonic pull of depression while illuminating almost nothing concrete. Virginia mocks Catherine’s feelings of facial discomfort with a withering, “You realize how fake that sounds?”—to which Catherine deflects, “You realize how insulting that is?” Rather than discuss their feelings and fears and thoughts and concerns openly and honestly, Perry’s women talk at each other, instead of to or with each other, deploying words as weapons in an effort to see who bleeds out first. That they know each other so well and have such spry vocabularies gives their verbal discharges an air of incisiveness and honesty—the one thing perhaps most missing from their conversations.

In that sense, the film brought most thoroughly, if not most readily, to mind when watching Queen of Earth is not one that Perry has cited or one that cineastes will spot one hundred yards off, but one seemingly very different—Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. Hitchcock’s high-toned “animals attack” riff on the European Art Film is a masterpiece in nearly every respect, and superficially resembles Perry’s film very little, deploying glossy old-school artifice in place of the exploitation-film immediacy of Perry’s grainy close-ups. But the surface hides everything—Hitchcock’s film is as much about avian warfare as Perry’s film is about the perils of vacationing with friends. The Birds brilliantly utilizes an assault from above to highlight the perverse obliqueness of its bourgeois protagonists, the utter inability of humankind—the only animal to have developed such sophisticated language—to really, truly communicate with one another. While not quite as brilliant, Perry similarly uses mental illness and the long-simmering resentments between those of long acquaintance to satirize viciously the deliberate and hurtful evasions of the upper classes. Their pain is no less important for their privilege, but their self-conscious erudition and cynical dislocation from reality renders them helpless in the face of life’s hardships—be they an especially ornery flock of crows or a departing father/boyfriend. As their weeklong nightmare draws to a close, Virginia weeps and Catherine cackles—finally reverting to pre-linguistic noises more revealing than any words they might have spoken. They have spent a week talking endlessly and saying nothing. Exactly.

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