Alex Ross Perry has been labelled, amongst other things, a misanthrope. His films, which document in unflinchingly literary detail the downfalls and fallouts of the human solipsism, give this judgment some credence, though the label itself is a reductive one. Take last year’s Listen Up Philip, Perry’s breakout, which starred Jason Schwartzman as an author whose insufferable self-absorption takes its toll on his life and loved ones. Scathing in its insights and corrosively funny to watch, Perry’s talent for plumbing the depths of human selfishness and malice was not only apparent, but refined. Queen of Earth might appear to be a departure for Perry, and in many ways it is, but it retains his distinctively perverse observational skill, eliciting the kind of perverse fascination that transpires from watching people’s lives deservedly fall to pieces. Watching his films is like pushing a bruise just to see how it feels—it hurts, of course, but at least you’re feeling something.
In Queen of Earth, Elizabeth Moss gives a scorchingly down-to-earth performance as Catherine, a woman on the cusp of a colossal mental breakdown. The first shot of the film announces her performance style, which is more Gena Rowlands than the polished Mad Men restraint we’ve come to know her for. Make-up streaks past a red-raw nose, Moss’s fangs defiantly bared as she grapples anger and heartbreak in the same brutal moment. She’s finding out from her long-term boyfriend—heard off-screen—that he’s cheated on her, this news coming just weeks after the death of her famous artist father, whose bubble of nepotism has sheltered and cushioned her for her entire life. But this is no sorry lovesick story, and Perry doesn’t indulge Catherine’s woes for a moment: she’s prickly and unlikable, the beneficiary of a life of privilege afforded to few, which makes her fall from grace both aberrantly gratifying and distressing to observe.
Catherine holes up in a lakeside retreat owned by the parents of her best friend, Virginia, played fearsomely by Inherent Vice standout Katherine Waterston. The two engage in a brittle tete-a-tete, a chamber piece fraught with so much isolated tension that it morphs into a psychological thriller. There’s so little levity that the audience self-designates its own moments of dark humour, laughing nervously and intermittently throughout. Perry flings back and forth between the tense present and a happier past, where the tables are unexpectedly turned during a previous trip to the lake house. In the flashbacks it’s Waterston’s Virginia whose life is unraveling, with Catherine as the neglectful friend more concerned with the relationship that would later bring about her downfall than with Virginia’s wellbeing.
Alleviating the thinly stretched tone of the present is Patrick Fugit’s comically ill-mannered Rich, a smug neighbor who pays frequent visits to the house to shack up with Virginia, and who perceptively sees straight through Catherine’s conceited poor little rich girl act. He knows exactly which buttons to push to rile Catherine into an apprehensive mess, but he doesn’t foresee the backfire that comes later in the film, as he triggers an aggressive, venomous thread of insults from Catherine that seem more directed at the world she thinks is conspiring against her than towards any particular person. Hell, as the saying goes, is other people, and Rich—fratboy name in tow—seems to epitomize every tedious character flaw of everyone Catherine’s ever hated. Outsiders are again of vital importance in another crucial scene, the film’s only real stylistic misstep, and a slight one: at a party, unexpectedly bustling with townsfolk, Catherine comes completely undone. Perry and his regular lenser Sean Price Williams adopt Polanski-style lenses and subjective angles to capture a consuming sense of claustrophobia, guests lurching over Catherine as her grasp on reality crumbles. But the dip into Rosemary’s Baby-esque horror is perhaps too precipitous to fully reclaim its sense of seriousness.
The obvious antecedent for Queen of Earth is John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence, but Perry draws more extensively from what seems like an entire subgenre of two-handed women-in-crisis dramas, the most pointed of which come directly from the era between the ’60s and the ’70s that he cites as the most influential to his work.1 Shot on 16mm and announced through stylised titles in bold red cursive (designed by Teddy Blanks, who also designed the memorable book covers of Listen Up Philip, glimpsed here in Ginny’s grasps and stocking her bookshelves), Queen of Earth is conscious of what informs its narrative and aesthetic, whilst never leaning on kitsch or lazy imitation.
Perry’s crew resembles something of an emerging collective in American independent filmmaking, a group of artists and friends whose talents are spread across a number of films at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. Robert Greene (Actress, MIFF 2015) edits, and Joe Swanberg (Drinking Buddies, Happy Christmas) produces. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams—who has lensed all of Perry’s films, as well as the Safdies’ The Black Balloon and Heaven Knows What, sections of Greene’s Actress, and the documentary Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon, all playing MIFF—trades out the frenetic handheld close-ups of Listen Up Philip for a tripod-bound shooting style less self-consciously stylised and more controlled. What remains from Philip is a penchant for shooting faces in blistering close-up akin to that of Cassavetes, an obvious hero of Perry’s. The absence of wide exteriors is crucial to the creation of tense claustrophobia; the lake house is fundamental to the film, in part because Williams’ isolation of faces neglects it, creating a strained sense of dithering physical grounding through this keenness for visual propinquity and mental interiority.
A brilliant one-shot scene gives the film its sombre centrepiece, depicting Cat and Ginny as they exchange bitter testimonies of past loves as Williams’ camera shifts slowly and subtly between them, pulling fragile focus in intense proximity as the acutely felt flicker of an overhead fan adds a pulsating undercurrent. It’s one of the few scenes in the film that shows these two women connecting with each other on a real emotional level, with empathy; it doesn’t just add a counterpoint to the spite and snark of the surrounding scenes, but it accentuates the sadness of the whole, the possibility of real connection and the failure to cultivate a friendship that’s buried under pangs of immaturity and mental fragility. This threadbare anxiety is exacerbated by a minimalist score by Keegan DeWitt (Listen Up Philip, Land Ho!), which lends the film an atonal rhythm throbbing with an uncannily machinelike precision.
The inexhaustible credits of this crew of collaborators are impressive, but they’re outdone, by a wide margin, by Moss’s performance here as Catherine. Her dual role as a producer and actor merely underlines the commitment she has to this performance, one that demands her to expunge an ugly emotional underside that few people would admit to being capable of. She’s caustic, turning malignant spatter into terrifying emotional gristle with consummate skill. There’s also a light cackle that seeps out occasionally from between her clenched teeth. It’s a laugh that rears its head again in the film’s shudder-inducing final moment, ending in a freeze-frame that seals Catherine’s fate. Whether her behaviour is the product of real emotional turmoil or just a fit of surmountable childish capriciousness is up to each viewer, but Perry doesn’t seem optimistic. He never has, which is what makes his films so complex and compelling. They offer a sobering antidote to all those other movies that tell us how wonderful our lives are. If he can continue to make films like Queen of Earth, his career could turn out to be just as indispensable to the fabric of American independent cinema as the heroes whose shadows he works in.
You can read our interview with Alex Ross Perry here.
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