Shot in just two weeks on 16mm film from his own script – Perry calls shooting on film as opposed to digital imaging “the uncompromiseable element in making a movie” – in a house in upstate New York, Queen of Earth charts the emotional breakdown of Catherine (a riveting, mesmeric Elisabeth Moss, doing what she considers the finest work of her career), as she spends a harrowing week in the country at the house of her “friend” Ginny (Katherine Waterston). It’s a brilliant tour de force in the tradition of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Persona (1966), but it cuts even deeper than that – it’s a dazzling film from beginning to end. [Note: Avoid the trailer for the film; it's really a disaster, and doesn't accurately reflect what's going on in the film at all.]
As Scott Tobias of NPR observes, “without a second’s hesitation, Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth dives right into its heroine’s lowest moment, in medias res. The camera stays close to Catherine’s face, as smears of mascara frame eyes alight with pain, anger and exhaustion; this has been going on a while and we’re just seeing the end of it.
Her boyfriend is breaking up with her, which is awful enough, but the timing makes it worse: She’s still reeling from the death of her father, an artist who mentored her, and now the two central figures in her life are gone. This double whammy leads to a psychological breakdown that Perry chronicles with unsettling acuity, but the breakup and the death are merely the catalysts. The cause cuts much deeper.
Set over a week in a secluded vacation home in the Hudson River Valley, Queen of Earth is a typically dyspeptic film by Perry, whose four features as writer-director all pluck at raw nerves. Perry’s last effort, Listen Up Philip, significantly darkened the high-toned literary comedies of directors like Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen, offering two authors whose combined egomania sweeps through their lives like a brush fire.
Though the characters in Queen of Earth speak their minds as freely and caustically as those in Perry’s other films, it deals with a different form of self-destruction, more internal than external. It’s not about Catherine having too much grief and loss to bear, but about the way they expose her inability to process it all. Hardship runs through her psyche like alcohol filtered through a diseased liver.
Evoking a long list of cinematic antecedents — Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and Woody Allen’s Interiors chiefly, but the suffocating dramas of John Cassavetes and Rainer Werner Fassbinder are on the table, too — Queen of Earth settles on the thorny relationship between Catherine, played by Elisabeth Moss, and her best friend, Virginia, played by Katherine Waterston.
‘Best friend’ should probably be in scare quotes, because they have reached a point where their closeness mostly applies to each of them knowing how to hurt the other the most. Virginia has invited Catherine out to her family retreat to help her find some peace and tranquility, but the hostility kicks in before they even get down the two-mile drive to the place.
For one, the house is haunted by memories of the previous summer, when Catherine and her boyfriend, James (Kentucker Audley), were locked in happy/sad co-dependency. Catherine was happier then, but the signs of long-term trouble were there, and returning to the scene a year later brings it all flooding back to her.
Now she and Virginia have switched places: Catherine doesn’t have a man in her life, but Virginia is flirting with Rich (Patrick Fugit), the boy next door, whose habit of casually breezing into the house seemed tolerable last year, but this time has Catherine raging over his flippancy and arrogance. It would be wrong, however, to hold Rich responsible for driving a wedge between the two old friends. They do that well enough on their own.”
For her part, Elizabeth Moss told Clark Collis in Entertainment Weekly that despite the film’s unrelenting nihilism, “it was super fun [to play Catherine]. It was very very cool. You don’t often get to do that — I hate to say ‘as a female’ because I don’t feel you get to do that as a male either. To me, playing happy characters is very boring. I don’t want to play the high points! It would be annoying. To see people succeeding all the time? Who wants that?
[Generally,] I don’t like watching myself [on screen]. What was interesting about this was, because I had a little bit of a producer capacity, I was able to watch this from a different place. I was able to appreciate it as a film. Which weirdly made me a lot less critical, because I could see things that made sense for the movie.
So, I actually really enjoyed watching this way more than I’ve ever enjoyed watching anything else. I’ve told Alex this in private, but I think it’s the thing I’m most proud of, as far as films go. I’m very excited and proud of this movie. So, weirdly, I didn’t have a huge problem watching it.”