With its lakeside setting in upstate New York and its depiction of post traumatic psychological fallout, Alex Ross Perry’s Queen Of Earth feels like a kindred spirit to Sean Durkin’s similarly themed and structured 2011 feature Martha Marcy May Marlene, only more queasily strung-out.
Where Durkin had Elizabeth Olsen’s chilly, unreadable face as his trump card, Perry has the fried grace of Eliasabeth Moss as Catherine, daughter of a recently deceased New York artist who also seems to have gone through a bit of a bad breakup. The film charts a week spent vacationing at a house on the lake shore with her trusted friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) as Catherine struggles to find her centre following the family tragedy.
She is evidently barely holding things together, and the week away – intended to help her find some sort of course correction – only proves liable to fragment her tumbling psyche even further. The whole time Perry asks us whether Catherine is worth sympathising with. Is she a genuinely fraught person suffering a legitimate illness, or just a spoiled, narcissistic little rich girl not worthy of our compassion?
Perry breaks up the journey with intertitles advising us of the advancing days, only to mottle the chronology by liberally sprinkling the narrative with flashbacks. What’s more, events within one day often don’t feel as though they take place in a rational order. This is partly down to the aforementioned time jumps. Day turns to night turns back to day again before the next ‘official’ day begins. It all adds to a sense of time that is both dislocated and expanded, mirroring Catherine’s increasingly harangued perspective.
She seeks both solitude and the company of those she feels she can trust (solely Virginia, it seems), so the presence of Virginia’s boyfriend Rich (Patrick Fugit) comes to be something of an itch. It is through his eyes that we see Catherine as little more than a dilettante. Though Perry is keen to press home the counter argument that Catherine’s depression is a serious and debilitating condition (see Catherine’s revelatory quiet smack down of Rich in the final act, which Moss coolly owns every second of). Over the course of 89 minutes, Perry masterfully builds a dread sense of anticipation that this tiny dynamic might combust royally.
As already intimated, Moss’ performance here is something of a tour de force. Showy, granted, but yet further evidence of her fine talents. There is something Jodie Foster-esque about her appearance here. Her work as Catherine comes in intense, multifaceted bursts, not least as the film deepens and she starts regressing into a more childlike role between Virginia and Rich (see particularly a canoe ride where Catherine literally seems like a daughter between two parents).
This is not solely Moss’ show, however. Waterston is equally as impressive, making this a two-hander to rival Carol in terms of measured onscreen bravura. Credit also to Perry for writing these women such generous, juicy, believable roles. The monologues that spill forth from their mouths feel genuine, honest, wholly convincing. In Perry’s world, these are set-pieces, and they’re performed to perfection.
Queen Of Earth is a portrait of a damaged soul unravelling in spite of herself. Not to labour the comparison, but if we return to looking at it against Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene, Perry’s film steps out of the shadow of the other in its technical approach.
Where Durkin’s film was icily composed and distant, Perry is more keen to push in on the ugliness of his characters. The handheld camerawork often draws attention to itself here. Director of Photography Sean Price Williams hovers over people’s shoulders, or gets right in their face. The viewer feels like an overbearing, voyeuristic guest, as though they’re actually within the scene. It aids our empathy with Catherine. At times you just wish we would back-off.
Yet in spite of this Queen Of Earth is frequently quite beautiful to look at. While it may constantly remind the viewer of its artifice, it does so with pragmatic clarity, much in the same way that it is impossible to watch a play performed in the theatre and forget about the fact of the stage. Perry almost acknowledges the audience and just gets on with it regardless. It might only be a movie, but it’s the movie you’re watching, so be a part of it.
Underpinning all of this is a sinuous, spindly score by Keegan DeWitt that amplifies much of the unease manufactured by Perry and his players. It hangs incessantly in the background, refusing to go away completely, twisting the sense of misplaced (?) foreboding and keeping the viewer guessing as to just where this all may lead.
The ultimate answer to that question may prove disappointing to some viewers, as Perry toys with the idea of his film descending into outright horror, but continually seems happier to deny his audience such an outright sense of catharsis. A moment in which Waterston’s Virginia instinctively reaches for a knife exemplifies this; it’s an open set of ellipses rather than a terse full stop. The film’s final scenes, meanwhile, are open to interpretation and openly invite a second viewing (just as with Durkin’s film, I might add).
There are rare occasions when Queen Of Earth lapses into histrionics that might’ve worked better dialled down or simply removed, but these stammers are the exception rather than the rule. More commonly, this is one of those quiet little gems that flit frustratingly in and out of UK cinemas without the recognition they deserve.
Oh, and for what it’s worth, it also features the most beautifully designed closing credits I can recall.