Queen of Earth screens at Chicago’s Music Box Theater on Friday, September 4th. It is also available on VOD and iTunes.
Queen of Earth, Alex Ross Perry’s fourth film, is about a woman who is stuck in the there and then, struggling to find herself in the here and now. The first time we see Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) we find her in close-up with the camera placed slightly above her eyeline, forcing the actress’ gaze up as she pleads with an off-camera boyfriend who is leaving her. She wears a mask of smeared mascara accentuated by a red nose; as Manohla Dargis points out, she looks a bit like a clown. It’s a sharp indicator of things to come, as Perry develops a film composed of the dualities of depression; of the unbending and flexible, of the comic and the sorrowful, of understanding and judgment, of friends and enemies, and of the past and present.
Following Catherine’s tearful break-up, she retreats to a lake house with her friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston). Perry is deliberate with detail, not immediately establishing their history; there’s an uneasy tension between them that puts their friendship in doubt. For a writer/director whose previous film Listen Up Philip was defined for its lexically acrobatic narration and liberal submission of (at times picayune) detail, this anxious and miasmic tone that Perry adopts is a major departure and a successful one.
As Catherine roams through the posh two-flat, Perry develops a rhythmic cutting approach to how we view the lake house: everything is so rigidly defined with wood beams and doorways serving to imprison her fragile psyche. Surprisingly, Perry’s go-to cutaway typically involves shots of the adjacent lake, its fluid and perennially moving current suggesting an escape from Catherine’s depressive decline (along with her breakup, Catherine’s father, an artist of considerable reputation, had committed suicide). It’s by the lakefront where Catherine laments to Virginia that she failed to see the signs of her father’s actions, whereby she considered depression more a problem, akin to work or money, than a sickness. It’s in this aside where we see the cacophony of her father’s sickness poison Catherine.
The film is contained within vignettes of the week, as an illustrious typeface identifies the day. Each day signals an increasingly volatile descent in Catherine’s emotional stability. It all begins to echo, where abrupt transitions between past and present occur, as Perry scales back to the previous year where Catherine and Virginia’s roles were switched. It was only the year before when Catherine and her then boyfriend were at the lake house, much to the disappointment of Virginia. It was then when Virginia was contending with her own spiral of anxieties and depression, and where Catherine’s attention was divided. Only now, it’s Virginia and her neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugitt) who intercede and interrupt Catherine’s capacity to rally forward.
Perry’s treatment of depression is especially astute, framing Catherine’s day-to-day plight as something to not just be endured but climbed, vertically. Her struggles are tangible, as every action done unto her seems to amplify in intensity. Beyond the thematic dualities that tear Catherine and Virginia apart, Perry formally addresses their separation in nuanced ways. Take a sequence early in the film, one where Catherine and Virginia speak of their failed past relationships. Perry pans the camera back and forth between the two, sustaining the shot for eight minutes without cutting. They’re on equal footing, sharing their tale of woe. They understand each other. But a divergence happens when the lake house’s gender politics are compromised by Rich’s intrusion: Perry is more apt to cut between Catherine and Virginia rather than letting them share the frame. And when they do, Perry utilizes diopter shots where the two are in deep focus, rendering the middle space a blur – that blur intensifies and segments these two characters more and more, until it composes most of the image, with Catherine and Virginia competitively vying for focused space.
The structural and thematic density of Queen of Earth makes for a formidable exercise, though it’s tough to get past certain derivative devices that Perry employs. This is a film indebted to the spirit of Robert Altman’s Images and 3 Women, along with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, so much so that the dividing line between cribbing and influence is blurred and ill-defined. Despite this, it’s a delight to see Perry’s prankster qualities take firm control in the closing sequence, where the film’s opening duality of drama and comedy is realized with such deft formal insight – where an inhalation of grief gives way to a cackling exaltation.