A striking 180 that demonstrates a sharp versatility and impressive command of multiple forms, filmmaker Alex Ross Perry’s latest effort, “Queen Of Earth,” is a mysterious and moody examination of complex personal dynamics, co-dependency, poisoned perceptions, and the fragile, thin line between friendship and hateship. A sharp departure from his last effort, the talky, caustically funny “Listen Up Philip,” Perry’s fourth feature-length effort is a chilly and claustrophobic chamber drama akin to works of Ingmar Bergman, but with paranoid psychodrama notes worthy of Roman Polanski. It’s like Woody Allen following up the amusing “Annie Hall” with the cold and distancing “Interiors.” But the movie’s emotional turbulence, resentful hostilities, and considerations of privilege, self-absorption, and narcissism are also pure Alex Ross Perry.
Set completely within the confines of an idyllic lake house upstate, the film centers on the quickly curdling friendship between two women. Deep in the early onsets of depression, Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) is having the worst time of her adult life. Overwhelmed by the death of her father, a renowned artist, and the unceremonious dumping by her boyfriend (Kentucker Audley), Catherine retreats to the posh summer home of Virginia (Katherine Waterston) to escape and recover. As she attempts to relax, an icy escalating tension drives a wedge between the two friends. It soon becomes clear their friendship isn’t as strong as it once was. Exacerbating their estrangement is Rich (Patrick Fugit), Virginia’s next door neighbor/occasional love interest who’s increasingly frequent presence around the house begins to threaten and unnerve the delicate Catherine.
A brilliant and tremendously performed set of monologues shot in one glorious take is the movie’s pièce de résistance both thematically and formally. As the two friends give truce to their warring, they confide deep personal fears and anxieties with one another. But as the camera luminously communicates with subtle, simple movements, the friends speak in self-absorbed soliloquies rather than actually talking to one another. Perry’s observations of complicated female dynamics are extremely perceptive and the emotional specificity of alienation, disenchantment, and mistrust is wonderfully precise. The director also nails the complex notions of façades and the anxieties that go along with them: like someone telling a self-deprecating joke only to quietly grimace when the audience of one laughs a little too hard.
As their relationship begins to curdle and Virginia can no longer mask her growing contempt, “Queen Of Earth” draws some rather poisonous fangs. As evinced in “Listen Up Philip,” Perry is at his best when evoking loathing and contempt. Already a friendship loaded with history and a complicated past, Virginia’s resentment begins to rise like bile in the throat and Catherine’s social anxiety becomes crippling. Their co-dependency is clear and increasingly toxic, their moods flowing into one another like water passing from cup to cup. Lacking traditional laughs, “Queen of Earth” isn’t entirely humorless either. The picture is certainly cutting and acerbic, but Perry’s dark sense of humor can’t help but break through a few times. In this regard the picture is arguably the logical extension of the venomous relationships of “Listen Up Philip,” but applied to the idea of how this noxious state can fray the mind.
Shot by Sean Price Williams (“Listen Up Philip,” “Somebody Up There Likes Me“), the chilly naturalism gives an ironic texture to all the beautiful surroundings. Often tightly framed, the claustrophobic restrictiveness is appropriately repressive. Moments of evocatively layered superimposition play into the film’s dreamy qualities and ideas about memory often captured in ephemeral flashbacks. Scored with a disquieting tenor by Keegan DeWitt, the movie’s arresting final image — a chilling shot both breathtaking and devilishly wicked — tips its cap with impish lullabies reminiscent of “Rosemary’s Baby.”
There will be the temptation to describe Perry’s film as his take on Polanski’s “Repulsion,” a psychological horror and descent into madness. While there are certainly some similar notes there, more accurate might be that movie mixed with Bergman’s female-lead shared-mental-space drama “Persona,” as the film is certainly a two-hander between the two women, even though it’s viewed mostly from Moss’ character’s perspective.
Both actresses are coming off strong performances (Moss with “Top Of The Lake” and “Listen Up Philip,” Waterston with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice”), and each lead delivers fearlessly bruising performances worthy of the haunting and eerie tone. Fugit is also remarkable as the mean-spirited, mind-game-playing boyfriend who helps take the movie into a more menacing atmosphere (Keith Poulson, Kate Lyn Sheil, and Craig Butta briefly co-star).
“Queen of Earth” is more successful when it places the viewer in a holding pattern of elusive dread than when it introduces paranoia that steers close to the psychological horror genre, but its brief forays are at least convincingly rendered and thankfully never overdone (and arguably without it, you’d have an unsatisfied audience who probably need this psychological payoff).
Featuring characters born of privilege and wealth, the aptly titled “Queen Of Earth” comments on the narcissism of perception and ideas that aristocracy is its own defense against the outside world. Both characters are defined by their sense of entitlement and the film plays with the idea that our collective problems certainly aren’t easy to deal with if we believe we’re the center of the universe. As Catherine’s breakdown spirals out of control, “Queen Of Earth” crescendos to its finale with a chilling, tightly wound emotional intensity. It’s a cold picture and may be a little obscure for some audiences, but watching this thrilling new filmmaking step and an auteurial voice grow is exciting stuff to witness. [A-]