Review by Leslie Byron Pitt
“Why are these people, friends?” Is the type of question you could find yourself asking when observing Alex Ross Perry’s quietly startling Queen of Earth. And rightly so. The film froths with a near overbearing deep-seated resentment which could make the psycho-biddies of the sixties flinch. However, despite the trading of venom that is applied between the film’s two lead female stars, the co-dependency the flitters around the couple is something that holds an acute authenticity about itself. This and the film’s depiction of what could be mental illness are grounded in a troubling believability. To see a mental state disregarded as we see here never feels false. Relationships like this, corroded by time and mistrust are more commonplace than we like to admit.
Queen of Earth introduces us to Catherine (a superlative Elizabeth Ross), whose mood (and possibly her mental stability) have been greatly affected by the death of her father and a hurtful breakup. Her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) decides to take Catherine away from it all with a week away to a lake house retreat owned by her parents. As the week wears on, so do the tensions, as the two women realise that their friendship as slowly succumbed to bitterness and acidic feelings towards each other.
There’s certainly a feel of Allen and Bergman in Perry’s piece. The white middle-class angst owes much towards the likes many of Allen’s works, while the film’s technical aspects, as well as the main conflict, hold strong similarities to Bergman’s Persona (1966). There is a feeling that the film’s influences are richer than the two most known nods. For instance, many have noted shades of Altman’s 3 Women (1977). For this writer, the sharp probing between the two seems to owe itself to the likes of Neil LaBute. Virginia’s allowance of watching Catherine fall apart has the same viciousness seen by Rachel Weisz’s Evelyn in The Shape of Things (2003). There’s a feeling that she wants to push things as far as they can go, much like Arron Eckhart’s Chad did with In The Company of Men (1997). Then you have the film’s dialogue, which has the same mannered way about itself that you would find from the likes of Whit Stillman. It’s not hard to imagine Virginia and Catherine take their scabrous barbs and go toe to toe against Alice and Charlotte from The Last Days of Disco (1998). A subway dance number to Love Train would be less likely, however.
Perry takes all the film’s rancour and wraps it within a beautiful and sometimes deceptive visual package. Sean Price Williams’ cinematography slides clandestinely between glistening, sun-kissed tones to drab, murky shadows in a blink of an eye. Perry also borrows visual motifs from the likes of Roman Polanski to heighten the disharmony. A fresh crisp salad degrades and rots, a la Repulsion (1965), not only serving as a visual metaphor for Catherine’s disintegrating psyche but also a representation of the crumbling relationship between the two women. One of the film’s key scenes involves the duo reminiscing over their previous relationships. It’s a gracefully constructed sequence orchestrated in one take with carefully timed rack focuses which have the camera hold the gaze more on the listener than the talker. Is the auditor actually listening? Are they contemplating their own thoughts or the speakers? At frequent points the scene even questions, whether or not the women are talking about the men at all. At times the unseen males feel like placeholders for an unspoken rival. We’re never entirely sure on whether they mean each other.
That unclear feeling of tone is what drives Queen of Earth. A daylight horror film. A paranoid thriller about long time companionship. The heightened score plays uneasily over a picturesque setting. Ross’ Catherine; smiles and grimaces at the same time. She is insulted, harshly, yet smiles and nods like it’s a simple processing of typical constructive criticism. Waterston’s Virginia smacks backhanded comments at Catherine as if it’s just a game the two just usually play. Something to keep them sharp. It’s not just the fact that the film delicately balances the hurtful as if it were playful. It’s that it does so with a frightening honesty. It plays like an exaggerated equivalent of your old school friends on facebook. The ones who post bitchy social media posts at no one in particular…except that one person. The one who reads if only to keep the perverse cycle going.
It’s what makes Perry’s film so compelling. Writer Kim Morgan considers Roman Polanski to be a director who holds the ability to become “impersonally personal”. It’s hard not to feel the same of Perry here. It’s not the conservations that get to you, although they do sound familiar. It’s the tone. When the blunt honesty is more about chipping at your armour for personal advancement rather than helping you to cope.
Then there’s the preserve “joy” of watching these two stunningly raw performances. People we’d try to avoid in real life, but can’t stop watching on the screen. Watching the two warp, gel and split like a particularly violent bacteria strain is mesmerising. Waterston deserves kudos for the amount of quiet heavy lifting she does (hers is a performance of reaction), but Ross owns the screen with a performance which consistently titters on the edge of lucidity. Ross is slowly becoming the go-to girl for slow self-destruction (see also: High-Rise). Unafraid of looking ugly both inside and out, this is a defining moment in what looks to be a varied and magnetic career.
It’s important to remember that the woman who may her losing her marbles has always been fertile ground for film. From the likes of the aforementioned Repulsion to recent takes such as Sebastián Silva’s bizarrely yet flawed Magic Magic (2013). Queen of Earth enjoys the use of the 60’s/70’s psyche thriller aesthetic, but it’s also a film that understands and upgrades the subtexts accordingly. As we watch these two women strip each other bare emotionally. We come to realise that what we’re watching may not “connect” with everyone (the class element does give the film a feeling of division), but it still manages to capture really real, grounded adult fears of mental health and the slow erosion of friends as they realise that they’ve drifted apart. Something that can get lost in a world of “continuous connection”. There’s that chilling notion that once we tear away at those tenuous strands, those close to us may not be around to help us. We may only be left with those fragile thoughts that keep us awake at night. Queen of Earth is at it’s most effective when it uses reminds us on just how easily thoughts like that can get under our skin.