Four films into an impressive career, writer/director Alex Ross Perry has delivered one of 2015’s most powerful films with rattling mood piece “Queen of Earth,” which opened last week (here’s Rodrigo’s A- review). Ostensibly the study of a fractured friendship between two women —Catherine (Elisabeth Moss), who is reeling from a recent breakup, and her frenemy Ginny (Katherine Waterston)— Perry’s potent film is one in a long line of cinematic journeys that chart the agonizing downward spiral of a woman perched on the precipice of sanity. It’s a tradition that Perry overtly embraces.
Roman Polanski’s influence is particularly pronounced, in everything from the film’s swoon-y pink typeface (a tip of the hat to “Rosemary’s Baby”) to the slow rotting of a summer salad that recalls the plate of rabbit in “Repulsion.” Yet despite further nods to the theatricality and artificiality of Rainer Werner Fassbinder‘s melodramas, and to the more experimental work of Robert Altman and even Ingmar Bergman, Perry’s film feels remarkably raw, far more so than the pastiche-y, winky cinephile in-joke it could have been. In fact, many of the below films with which it shares its central subject —a state that in less enlightened times would have been referred to as “female hysteria”— also take place in that fascinatingly arch area just beyond the boundaries of “traditional” realist drama, but right before the territory of all-out camp.
We’ve curated a list of 12 titles that take this theme and run with it. Some of these films were directly namechecked as influences by Perry in interviews in February and August; we’ve picked others. But all are characterized by a similar push-pull between close-up, subjective psychological decay and a certain ironic objectivity, an almost clinical remove from the doom and drama their female protagonists are undergoing. Perhaps there’s even an element of sadism here, as well as an exploration of the idea of female sexuality as troublesome and potentially threatening: it’s worth noting that all these films are concerned with a distinctly female-gendered experience ( it’s seldom like this when men go mad in movies), yet all are directed by men.
That sadism is maybe also reflected in whatever odd, probably unsavory desire these films serve in the audience. Some sick part of us gets a jolt from seeing these delicate heroines put through the wringer, while another, more compassionate impulse simultaneously leads us to sympathize with the woman being treated with such seemingly needless cruelty, whether by the filmmakers or by her onscreen companions, or both. It’s a tricky tightrope, but it releases a certain fascinating energy that all 10 of the following titles share with Perry’s terrific “Queen of Earth.”
“3 Women” (1977)
Part mythic American tapestry, part waking reverie, but all Robert Altman, “3 Women” remains arguably the restless American director’s most puzzling and challenging film (though his second film, the batshit “Brewster McCloud,” would probably also be in the running). Eschewing traditional narrative storytelling techniques almost entirely, Altman instead opts for a series of hazy, blissed-out scenes that depict the strange, powerful relationship that develops between, you guessed it, three women who find themselves serendipitously drawn into each other’s orbit. The film starts with the forced friendship that is thrust upon Pinky (Sissy Spacek) and Millie (Altman regular Shelley Duvall), two employees at a health spa for old folks. Pinky, like Spacek’s heroine from Brian De Palma’s “Carrie”, is shy, withdrawn and socially inept. Millie, meanwhile, is a classic go-getter: effortlessly confident and also more than a bit annoyed at Carrie’s awkward attempts at what should be harmless work rapport. A third principal character, Willie (Janice Rule), who paints bizarre murals inside of pools, enters the picture, but to describe any more of the plot would be to give too much away. “3 Women” seems born straight from the subconscious, where logical analysis couldn’t possibly apply (indeed, Altman said several times that the genesis for the film came to him in a dream). The film’s focus on a strained female relationship occasionally recalls parts of Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” but the director’s aim here is entirely different. A slow, creeping unease pervades the movie’s corners, which depict a blighted, dusty desert America that seems all but left behind by the modern world. “3 Women” may not be as dark as some of the other films on this list, but it’s every bit as strange: a beguiling and wonderful trip into the mind of its creator, via the minds of its characters.
“The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant” (1971)
If part of the acid pleasure of “Queen of Earth” is the slightly synthetic edge to its highly-strung interactions, it’s a quality that you can see in abundance in many of the films of Alex Ross Perry’s avowed influence Rainer Werner Fassbinder. But his terrific, single-setting ‘Petra Von Kant’ feels like its closest kin, not just formally, but in thematic terms too: it is all about the power plays that manifest in female relationships, here in a hothoused environment isolated from the normalizing influence of the outside world. Petra (Margit Carstensen) is a successful fashion designer who dominates her submissive assistant/servant Marlene (Irm Hermann). But when she’s introduced to the pretty, shiftless Karin (Hanna Schygulla), Petra falls instantaneously in passionate love, which renders her the powerless one. The whole film unfolds in Petra’s boudoir/workspace, one wall of which is dominated by a massive print of Poussin‘s Midas and Bacchus —the naked male forms on the wall are the only men we see throughout, though such presences from the women’s past dominates many of their conversations and interactions. Karin, apparently using Petra for her money and for the boost she gives to her burgeoning modelling career, is easily irritated by Petra’s constant protestations of love, and seeks outside pleasures which she uses to torture Petra further, and all the while Marlene, doglike and clad in black, toils away in the background, typing, sketching and waiting on Petra in mute servitude. After Karin eventually leaves her, Petra, coded in different colored wigs and some spectacular Mata-Hari-style costuming throughout, has a breakdown on her birthday during which she flings recriminations at all the other women of the cast —her mother, her friend, her daughter (Eva Mattes), before finally ruining her relationship with Marlene by being, of all things, kind. A peculiar mix of grotesque and graceful, it’s one of Fassbinder’s most iconic and endlessly fetishizable films, being so overtly about fetish and mutually enabling, destructive relationships.
“Black Swan” (2010)
Darren Aronofsky’s characters have always had a proclivity for going off the rails. His shattering debut “Pi” was about a chess-playing loner convinced of God’s existence through arcane puzzles coded in stock market numbers. The junkies of “Requiem for a Dream” and the battered brutes of “The Wrestler” throw themselves into the gaping maw of oblivion with big, glorious abandon. But “Black Swan,” his “Repulsion”- and “Suspiria“-indebted ballerina melodrama, might be his most emotionally devastating picture. Walking a sometimes-wobbly line between camp and genuine horror, Aronofsky’s film traces the mental collapse of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman): a career dancer whose domineering mother has basically forced her into this highly demanding and exhausting profession. When Nina’s ambitions are threatened by the arrival of a rival dancer (Mila Kunis) who turns out to be her lithe, younger counterpart, Nina’s anxieties are made manifest in the form of horrifying daytime hallucinations. Aronofsky has fun blending Nina’s increasingly batty nightmares with the living, waking New York City that the film takes place in, and he certainly never looks away as his protagonist sinks deeper and deeper into a hell of largely her own making. The finale is go-for-broke in typical Aronofsky fashion and some scenes, to be sure, go straight for histrionics. Yet Portman’s quietly assured, heartbreaking central performance holds it all together, even when it threatens to come undone. Her Nina is brittle and socially closed-off, but she’s so completely innocent that, as the film progresses, we eventually become as afraid for her safety as she is. “Black Swan” is a splashy, unapologetic leap into melodrama, with little to no interest in restraint and Aronofsky, as usual, throws in everything but the kitchen sink. This makes the picture itself both ravishing and also occasionally frustrating, yet Portman’s dazzling embodiment of broken womanhood is one for the ages.
“Carnival of Souls” (1962)
If “Let’s Scare Jessica To Death” (below) doesn’t wholly deserve its cult status, “Carnival of Souls,” the other film Perry bracketed with it, absolutely does. In fact, Perry is far from the first filmmaker to count this early ’60s, independently made curio as an inspiration: David Lynch and George Romero are reportedly both fans, and it’s not hard to see why. Unfolding as a sort of “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”-style story (it even starts with a car falling into the water from a bridge), the film follows Mary (a striking, oddly modern-looking Candace Hilligoss), the sole survivor of a drag-racing accident who moves to a new town to take up a position as a church organist. But she is plagued by visions of a creepy white-faced man (played by the film’s director, writer and producer Herk Harvey), hears foreboding organ music wherever she goes (a stunning organ score by Gene Moore, whom we hope received at least a fruit basket from Danny Elfman at some point) and at times seems to phase out of existence altogether, unable to hear or communicate with anyone around her. But aside from the slim plot, the film is an excuse for several genuinely chilling motifs to appear and recur, most memorably the titular carnival, an abandoned ornate structure on a pier that houses a coterie of damned souls as they dance eternity away. It may have been made on the cheap, but in many ways that makes the imagery, as practical as it had to be, even more evocative and surprising, while the gorgeous black and white cinematography shows DP Maurice Prather’s background in stills photography in terms of composition and clever lighting. Often playing around Halloween in rep cinemas nowadays and reissued recently by Criterion, “Carnival of Souls”‘ is having an appropriately long afterlife: you can even watch the entire thing in HD on youtube.
An inexplicably undervalued “minor” Robert Altman film, “Images” is an effectively chilling take on the female madness genre, lent a further eerie dimension by the profession of the heroine and by Vilmos Szigmond‘s terrific photography. In probably her career-best performance, Susannah York plays children’s author Cathryn, whose rising tide of insanity feels uncannily linked to her tales of supernatural, Narnia-like creatures, which she narrates in voiceover and which come to represent a sort of inner life. Outwardly, she’s a successful, creative woman in a happy marriage to Hugh (Rene Auberjonois) that is only marred by his frequent absences, which allow her imagination to conjure the suspicion that he’s having an affair. Following a psychological breakdown where she mistakes him for her dead ex-lover Rene (Marcel Bozzuffi), the couple retreats to an isolated country house in rural Ireland, where they are joined by their artist friend Marcel (Hugh Millais) and his young daughter Susannah (Cathryn Harrison). So you’ll have noticed the hi-jinks Altman is engaging in, with the names of his characters switching with the actors they play, but such meta flourishes are merely icing on an already deliciously poisonous cake. Cathryn’s paranoiac insanity takes further hold —she’s constantly caught up in fraught erotic fantasies in which the men conflate into each other and she lashes out at the phantasms in murderous fashion. Which leads to some extraordinary scenes where the banal rubs up against the gruesome and inexplicable: having “killed” the already-dead ex-lover who was tormenting her, Cathryn has to coolly step over his body time and again on the way to the kitchen. It’s a self-indulgent and rather academic puzzle to work out, but there’s a level of compassion and sympathy unusual for the genre, and Altman’s genius is in summoning not only the horror of madness, but the seduction of it too —how succumbing to delusion might feel strangely liberating, even, God help us, sexy.
“Let’s Scare Jessica To Death” (1971)
“I don’t have highbrow illusions about what I’m doing… What we’re talking about on set is ‘Let’s Scare Jessica To Death’ and ‘Carnival of Souls’… That’s by most standards ‘low’ cinema.” So said Perry when we spoke to him at the Berlinale, and he’s certainly right as far as this 1971 title from director John Hancock goes. Proof positive that not everything that is rehabilitated as a cult classic necessarily deserves the treatment, it is still possible to see where the influence lies on “Queen of Earth,” especially in terms of setting —lakesides and bedrooms feature prominently, and the final shot of Perry’s film eerily mimics the first shot of ‘Jessica’— while also noting that “great” might be a bit of stretch as a descriptor here. It’s not without its moments, but it can also be rather dull, muddled and unsatisfying from a narrative standpoint, as Jessica (Zohra Lampert), recently released from a mental institution, is brought to recuperate at her new Connecticut farmhouse home by her husband (Barton Heyman) and hippie friend (Kevin O’Connor). But a mysterious, seductive redhead, Emily (Mariclare Costello), who may or may not be some sort of vampire, is already living there and ends up staying: she’s part houseguest, part houseghost. Meantime, Jessica starts seeing visions of a little blonde girl; the odd, reticent townspeople all sport neck wounds; and every time anyone goes swimming, a hand tries to pull them under the water. None of it adds up to much at the end, despite a twist that was much better achieved in Altman’s “Images” the following year, yet there are some pleasantly shivery moments along the way, as well as an atmosphere of sexual threat and confusion as Emily’s predatory nature is revealed, and all the men in Jessica’s life succumb to her charms, leaving her with no one to rely on but her own hallucinating, degenerating mind.
Similar to “Queen of Earth,” Ingmar Bergman’s mysterious, beautiful “Persona” is a film about how two women could feasibly serve —in a metaphorical sense, anyway— as two divided halves of the same identity. Now recognized as an unshakable classic in the firmament of 20th century filmmaking, the film moves with effortless grace, from a start that summons the birth of cinema in its opening moments to the death of love and language in its fathomless, haunting later passages. The great Liv Ullmann —who would go on to work with Bergman repeatedly, in the deconstructionist drama “The Passion of Anna,” the sadly under-seen “Autumn Sonata” and “Scenes from a Marriage”— plays Elisabet, a once-great screen actress who suddenly stops speaking one day, a condition which defies medical diagnosis, while warm, wounded Bibi Andersson plays Alma, Elisabet’s nurse. “Persona” is really about the intertwining of these two women spiritually and metaphysically, as their roles shuttle back and forth between friend-friend, mother-daughter, caretaker-patient and boss-employee. And as also seen in “Queen of Earth,” “Persona” trades in suffocating close-ups of its two lead actresses, a technique that exposes their physical visages as roadmaps of inner struggle and concealed secrets, often by using overlapping profiles. The characters here expound long, painful monologues about events that dictated the rest of their lives: Alma’s recollection of her first sexual encounter on a beach —one that occurred alongside her friend and two other boys— is unforgettable. Perhaps Bergman’s most radically poetic film, its images possess a potency that speaks volumes: a spider crawling across a camera lens; a young boy reaching out into the throbbing white void; Anderson and Ullman’s face delicately juxtaposed as though they were two halves of the same whole. This is a film that looks right into you as you watch it.
Roman Polanski’s golden run, from his nasty debut “Knife in the Water” to the cinematic landmark “Chinatown,” saw the Polish auteur delving into often sordid subject material, ranging from cuckolding to masochism to rape to devil worship and beyond. “Repulsion,” the director’s second feature film, is a painful and often terrifying look at one woman’s slow unraveling, and the mental and emotional wounds that allow her to wilt into despair. It’s certainly not Polanski’s most technically accomplished picture —although the very fine Criterion restoration of the film is about as good as you’re likely to get when it comes to audio and visual quality— but it might be his most visceral. Catherine Deneuve plays Carol, a brittle, withdrawn young woman who works at a nail salon in swinging ’60s London. Sex terrifies her. Everywhere she goes, she is met with the sinister, leering gazes of boorish male specimens wishing to do her harm and to somehow prey upon her. She suffers from visions of attackers in her sleep. Even her seemingly kind sister brings home her boyfriend and has uncomfortably loud sex in the adjacent room. What’s particularly unnerving about “Repulsion” is the way in which Polanski uses the physical decay of the interiors as a sort of neat metaphor for his heroine’s dwindling mental state. A growing crack in the wallpaper or an increasingly grotesque-looking plate of skinned rabbit serve as chilling reminders of the tenuousness of our own sanity and the dangers of isolation. “Repulsion” is one of Polanski’s most disturbing pictures (which is really saying something if you’ve ever seen “Cul de Sac” or “The Tenant”) and it’s an unofficial bible/essential reference point if you want to make a movie about a young woman slowly losing her mind. At the very least, we guarantee you won’t ever look at a shaving razor in the same way again.
“Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
From the moment Rosemary enters her seemingly perfect new apartment, something seems not quite right. Not long after she moves in, Mia Farrow’s wide-eyed waif begins to suffer from nerve-rattling nightmares: of drug-fueled orgies, of cults that appear to be Satanic and of rape and various undefined tortures. The second (and arguably best) in Polanski’s great “Apartment Trilogy,” “Rosemary’s Baby” remains perhaps the quintessential is-she-mad-or-is-she-sane flick, and also an eerily prophetic end-of-the-’60’s horror picture. The film’s depiction of paranoia —where any gathering of people could potentially be a pack of murderous vipers in disguise— often serves as a disconcerting reminder of the tragic fate of Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate who would become a victim of the notorious Charles Manson gang while pregnant a year after this film’s release. Yet in spite of these sordid circumstances, “Rosemary’s Baby” stands as one of the director’s finest achievements: a portrait of mental unrest that is all the more destabilizing for not resorting to hackneyed boogieman clichés in order to get under the audience’s skin. The monsters in Polanski’s film are not vampires, ghouls or goblins. They are friends, neighbors, passerby on the street. Even Rosemary’s doctor —and who are you going to trust if you can’t trust a doctor?— turns out to be conspiring against her. Polanski asks a lot of his leading lady, and Farrow is more than up to the task via her frighteningly, achingly human performance. From the morbid, sea-sick lullaby and God’s-eye zooms of its opening title sequence all the way to its stomach-churning finale (“Hail Satan!”), “Rosemary’s Baby” is one of the greatest achievements in horror cinema.
Probably the artistic apex of the giallo movement director Dario Argento pioneered along with fellow Italians Mario Bava and Lucio Fulci, touchpoint ballet horror film “Suspiria” is a spectacular evocation of a kind of heavily sexualized dementia that again happens in a cloistered, rarefied, and largely female environment. For giallo neophytes, its trademark lush, hyperstylized, color-saturated visuals, lashings of gore and undercurrent of lurid female eroticism can be a heady attack on the senses —there is nothing tasteful about “Suspiria,” which is part of its eternal attraction. Drenched in an extraordinary score (provided by prog rockers Goblin, who made it onto our list of Best Horror Scores of all time for this and Argento’s “Tenebre“), the film concerns an American ballerina (Jessica Harper) who transfers to a sinister German dance academy covertly run by a satanic coven of witches, including “Dark Shadows” star Joan Bennett. But it’s far more of an exercise in splashy, sensationalist style and evocatively nasty imagery than a page-turner narrative, with all the ways it departs from the polish of a classically Hollywood-style film (cronky post-dubbing of the Babel tower of accents from the international cast; unconvincing acting; hyper-unreal special effects and herky-jerk editing) become the very elements that make it such and arresting and eternally rewatchable mish-mash now. But for all the garish unsubtlety and occasionally amateurish feel of Argento’s work, “Suspiria” is undeniably creepy and evocative, tuning in to burgeoning female sexuailty as a metaphor for a quasi-mystical transformation process that is unknowable but also oddly beautiful without ever trying to transcend its exploitation / b-movie basis. Taking on these cues and polishing and refining them would be a job for the film’s many subsequent admirers (Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” owes “Suspiria” a heavy debt), but this is the film that is their ground zero, and it retains an intense, unsettling and uncanny power today despite its undeniable camp value.
There are of course many other films in this storied genre —”Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” springs to mind immediately as the grand guignol archetype of this sort of fervid exploration of female envy and bitterness, while “Mommie Dearest” and other films about diseased mother-daughter relationships often have that same histrionic edge. On the vastly more realist end of the scale, there’s John Cassavetes‘ peerless “A Woman Under the Influence” which feels too real and sincere to easily rub shoulders with some of the campier extremes outlined above, while the entire early output of Pedro Almodovar, especially the absurdist “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” takes its self-aware archness in a more overtly comedic direction than “Queen of Earth.”
If you want more of this sort of thing, you can check out tangentially related features like Lunatic Asylum films, 5 Of The Worst Movie Mothers (and here are 5 More), or a similar piece we ran on 5 Films To Watch If You Love ‘The Wicker Man.” Meantime, stay away from bodies of water, sharp objects, isolated cottages and reflective surfaces and let us know your own favorite cinematic hysteria victims in the comments below.
— co-written with Nicholas Laskin