Disarming performances and a distinctive auteur combine for a devastating look at fraying friendships and mindsets.
When Catherine (Elisabeth Moss, TV's Mad Men) goes to bed, she tucks the covers neatly around her sides. When Virginia (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice) — or Ginny to those closest to her — wants to turn off the light to go to sleep, she throws a pillow at the light switch. One meticulous, the other unrestrained, their actions comprise brief moments early in Queen of Earth; however they say everything about what is to come. On the cusp of spending a week together in a remote lakeside cabin, the approaches the two take to retiring for the evening's rest lays plain their irreconcilable differences.
Jumping between counting down the days on the current getaway and recounting the highlights of a previous trip to the same place, the feature that follows continues to explore a shifting chasm in a long-term friendship, sometimes shrinking when fond memories bubble up, sometimes growing over diverging opinions, and never in a state of comfort. Then, Ginny was recovering from a traumatic breakup, and having some fun with the guy-next-door, Rich (Patrick Fugit, Gone Girl). Now, Catherine is the broken-hearted party, mourning both the absence of the boyfriend (Kentucker Audley, Ain't Them Bodies Saints) who accompanied them on their last visit, as well as the death of the artist father she worked for.
To say that the women spend the 90-minute duration of Alex Ross Perry's (Listen Up Philip) fourth film circling around each other is to do the writer/director a disservice. Though such a description is accurate of the dark material and brooding execution, Perry and his cast demonstrate a mastery of internal battles as much as external conflicts. In the isolated, increasingly claustrophobic confines of Catherine and Ginny's supposed sanctuary, tensions boil over, words are flung, and aggression of the most scathingly passive and then paranoid kind becomes more and more overt. In the recesses of Catherine's mind, her grip on her relationships — with those gone, with her lifelong pal, and with her sense of self — crumbles.
Accordingly, the ever-versatile filmmaker with Impolex and The Color Wheel also on his resume has precisely and potently crafted not only an intimate, emotionally heightened, two-handed chamber piece, but also a duo of other things. It is a disarming psychological horror film about our worst tendencies, and a devastating character study that paints such pains onto the screen. The breaking bond between the central pair fuels the former, while the fallout upon Catherine comprises the latter. That Perry follows in the footsteps of great inspirations — Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Robert Altman’s 3 Women, and Roman Polanski's Repulsion, for example — may be obvious, yet Queen of Earth doesn't suffer for the comparison. Indeed, as the filmmaker has done across his short but flourishing career, he layers knowledge of his influences over a distinctive work that simmers with more than just the torment such a tale necessitates.
That dread-filled seething and smoldering comes as much from an incisive script that cuts to the core of a fraying, fragile female friendship — complete with the baggage, competitive urges and envy that can cause them to unravel — as it does from the work of cinematographer Sean Price Williams (Heaven Knows What) and composer Keegan DeWitt (Unexpected). Both amplify the pressure already bursting within the film, honing in, be it with a slow zoom or a sustained refrain, on the eerie, haunting mood. With the soft 16mm-shot visuals textured in their up-close-and-personal contents and in their composition, every frame demands scrutiny. The melodic and the ethereal combine for the feature's aural accompaniment, ensuring that it's not just the story and sights that remains unnerving.
And then there's the icy film's centrepiece — aka star and producer Moss. As she did in Listen Up Philip for Perry just last year, she holds the fate of the film in her adaptable, expertly controlled face, whether crying and arguing with a mascara- and tear-streaked countenance in the movie's opening, glaring venom during altercations with her co-star, smiling awkwardly during wider social encounters, or staring almost catatonically at the camera. Hers is a role as demanding as it is deftly handled, as is Waterson's as the frenemy preying on insecurities and vulnerabilities, with each as convincing in their range of expressions and actions as they are in the barbs and hostilities they trade. Witness their main moment of communion, sharing secrets and inner thoughts yet barely speaking to the other, to see the extent of both actress' command in conveying the thin line between love and hate. Then watch the remainder of Queen of Earth to revel in the insular extremes of a narrative, performances and auteur spiraling into the void of the fears, fractures and flipsides of connection and its impact upon identity.
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Queen of Earth
Director: Alex Ross Perry
USA, 2015, 90 mins
Melbourne International Film Festival
July 30 – August 16
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