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Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth (2015)

Saturday, August 29th, 2015

Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth is a superb new film – click here to see an interview with the director.

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.”

Nor do I – see this film now on demand or in a theater, if you’re lucky enough to have that choice.


Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Liv Ullman and Bibi Andersson in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona

It’s somewhat scandalous that I haven’t written a line on Ingmar Bergman yet, except to note that when his film The Touch failed at the box-office, and he found it impossible to get American distribution for his next project, that producer/director Roger Corman came to his rescue with partial financing and American distribution for Cries and Whispers. So, here’s a word or two in praise of Persona, perhaps my favorite of all of Bergman’s films, although I am partial some of the early work, especially Wild Strawberries.

Persona represented a huge leap forward for Bergman, who came from the theater, and for most of his life, would direct a theatrical production in Sweden each winter, and then venture forth with his stock company of actors and technicians to shoot a film every spring. Persona was to have been shot in the studio, but it almost immediately became apparent that this arrangement wasn’t working out, and so Bergman transported his crew and his actors — the two key actors are Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman — to his summer house on the island of Fårö, where his own house, as well as several local buildings, were used for the shooting,

What sets Persona apart from Bergman’s earlier work is its lack of theatricality; its austere sculptural presence; its plastic uses of the possibilities of the moving image, as when the film rips, or falls out of focus, or freezes; and especially the film’s hyper-edited, deeply self-reflexive introduction, in which Bergman conducts a whirlwind metaphorical tour of his imagistic past.

The set-ups in the film are flat, spare, and striking, and the overall embrace of aberrant, jarring cinematic devices reminds one inescapably of mid-60s Godard, especially with regard to Bergman’s lighting, sets, and his use of uncharacteristically long takes, using a static set-up to record minutes of action at a clip.

Bergman, however, publicly stated that he thought little of Godard’s work, commenting on one occasion that: “in this profession, I always admire people who are going on, who have a sort of idea and, however crazy it is, are putting it through; they are putting people and things together, and they make something. I always admire this. But I can’t see his pictures. I sit for perhaps twenty-five or thirty or fifty minutes and then I have to leave, because his pictures make me so nervous. I have the feeling the whole time that he wants to tell me things, but I don’t understand what it is, and sometimes I have the feeling that he’s bluffing, double-crossing me.”

This dislike became even more pronounced as Godard’s career progressed, when Bergman fulminated that “I’ve never gotten anything out of his movies. They have felt constructed, faux intellectual and completely dead. Cinematographically uninteresting and infinitely boring. Godard is a [. . .] bore. He’s made his films for the critics. One of the movies, Masculin/ féminin, was shot here in Sweden. It was mindnumbingly boring.”

But when I first saw Persona, in a screening I will never forget at the Garden Theater in Princeton, NJ, when it was first released (after being awake for some 36 hours working on films and various other projects), although I was dead tired, the film immediately jolted me awake, because it seemed to reflect the influence of no one so much as Godard, in framing, in style, in structure — in every respect.

Bergman’s usually dark and forbidding lighting, his rococo frames, overstuffed with suffocating bric-a-brac — quite intentionally, for many of his earlier films were period pieces  — were now cleared away, and the result was that the actors were in the foreground, rather than their surroundings; they created the world they existed in, rather than having it created for them by the sets and costumes. With Persona, Bergman entered the modern world.

Even Cries and Whispers, despite its enormous commercial success, seemed a throwback to Bergman’s earlier films, as if were escaping back to his childhood, and certainly the same can be said of his last films, especially the obviously semi-autobiographical Fanny and Alexander, which to me, at least, was a ponderous bore. Persona, on the other hand, was fresh and new, and I remember thinking, with great force, how much Bergman had absorbed the philosophical and stylistic influence of the French New Wave filmmakers, especially Godard, who shares with Bergman a somewhat cold and unforgiving vision of the world, though Bergman, in his last years, seemed to become increasingly sentimental.

So, what can I say — I think Bergman protests too much. Persona is obviously indebted to Godard, and to the breakdown of cinematic tradition that personified the 1960s, whether he knew it, or admitted it, or not.

Here’s Susan Sontag’s take on the film; see what you think.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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