Elisabeth Moss plays a young woman in total psychological breakdown mode in Alex Ross Perry’s Berlin premiere “Queen of Earth,” a startlingly audacious departure for the writer/director that also feels like a natural progression for an auteur in the making. In a wildly unpredictable, rangy lead performance, Moss shows us dark sides of her we’ve never seen before.
Perry tears shamelessly from the pages of the hysterical women canon, keying into Polanski’s “Repulsion” and “The Tenant,” Altman’s “Images” starring Susannah York, a sort of proto-“3 Women” about a splintering female psyche, with shades of Bergman and, yes, Woody Allen’s own strained Bergman homage “Interiors.” The creeping zooms of Sean Price Williams’ 16mm camera close in on the faces of Moss and studio turned indie starlet Katherine Waterston, framed in “Persona”-like juxtaposition to instill in us the sickening feeling that these two women are two halves of a whole, as if some unholy astrological alignment were bringing them together to break all hell loose.
The movie is about two cripplingly codependent girlfriends on edge. Catherine (Moss), blistered by a horrific breakup and the suicide of her tortured artist father, does what any onscreen psycho woman to-be is wont to do, which is to take to a remote lakeside retreat to make peace with her grief. The cabin belongs to the parents of her longtime friend Virginia (Waterston), a less easily rattled, long-haired beauty who comes along under the pretense of being a support system, but really she’s looking for a summer escape of her own.
Intercut with moments of the present day, where the reeling Catherine quickly descends into madness, are pieces from the past, where a once blissful friendship now looks almost prophetically fraught in hindsight. In present day, Catherine oscillates madly between catatonia and manic, erratic depression–often while shoving potato chips down the gullet. Moss wears Catherine’s warring mental states plainly on her face, which looks as if she’s been crying for hours (and probably has). Virginia, on the other hand, exudes all the sexuality and confidence the diffident Catherine does not, and admittedly dreams of being a member of the “modern aristocracy.” She’s a layabout, who comes from money, where Catherine is overly earnest and eager almost to a fault. She has lived in her father’s shadow for years, toiling away as his personal assistant. These complicated, lethally entwined women are prone to listless bickering, bouts of passive aggression and hurling vicious barbs at one another—in between all the declarations of love.
Two male characters also hover in and around the fringes of the movie: Catherine’s ex (Kentucker Audley), seen in discomfiting flashbacks to domestic quarreling, and Virginia’s paramour du jour Rich (a quietly freaky Patrick Fugit), who comes in and out of the country cabin to Catherine’s increasing chagrin.
Primed for madness under the thumb of her father, who obviously had been wrestling with depression, Catherine goes into “Repulsion” meets “Black Swan” meets “A Woman Under the Influence”-style crazy town, and if you’re going to do this kind of movie, you have to deliver the paranoid, hallucinatory freakout scene. Alex Ross Perry does it thrillingly, as hyper-pushy party guests nettle Moss’ character, poking and prodding her into a shatteringly public meltdown as flashlights flicker on weird, painted, freakishly distorted faces that may or may not be real.
Editor Robert Greene, who authored his own picture of the jagged female psyche “Actress,” gets as pushy and volatile and in-your-face as Moss does, smash-cutting back and forth between time periods and memories and the faces of Catherine and Virginia. Cinematographer Williams meanwhile, perfects his own version of the Bergman stare, all but smushing faces against the lens.
Deliberately stagey two-hand dialogues feel more like a play, where the two characters face outward rather than toward each other. In what is perhaps the film’s piece-de-resistance, the camera holds on Waterston and Moss for a about 10 minutes as they go into soliloquy-mode, rhapsodizing about being trapped in victimizing cycles of behavior in failed relationships. But what they’re really realizing is that they’re trapped in the relationship with each other. Catherine and Virginia go back and forth, viciously hurling barbs at one another and in no more telling or small a moment than when helpless Virginia pleads, “I care about you,” and Catherine spits, “No you don’t,” resigned.
In a brutally committed and totally consuming performance that already feels iconic, Elisabeth Moss stretches herself to highs and lows that are so fascinating to watch, it’s obvious what a thrill the actress had in playing a hysterical, delusional psychotic. Waterston has a powerfully accusatory and implacable gaze that suggests complete control, reaffirming the naturalism chops shown in her studio debut “Inherent Vice.” Moss also possesses a quiet power in her eyes, refracting mischief and an uneasy tranquility at the same unnerving time.
Perry takes an almost calculatedly severe leap from his earlier indie jabber-fests about overeducated narcissists, “Listen Up Philip” and “The Color Wheel”–but the turn toward genre, and more serious woman-driven psychodrama, is all the more curiously refreshing. Down the line in what is sure to be a fruitful career–if he keeps making movies this interesting– “Queen of Earth” will probably be seen as a intriguing, if polarizing, diversion from his self-obsessed urbanite stomping grounds. It’s apparent how much he must have fallen in love with Moss while directing her marvelous performance in “Listen Up Philip.”
Like a bad dream that haunts you for days, “Queen of Earth” is immediately a classic in the male-authored women-on-the-verge genre, and a remarkably creepy and emotionally graphic grand-guignol showcase for the insanely talented Moss.