The stars are currently aligning auspiciously for Katherine Waterston, who quickly supplements her attention-grabbing performance as the not-so-missing person in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” with a startlingly impressive co-lead turn opposite small-screen favorite Elisabeth Moss in Alex Ross Perry’s “Queen of Earth”.
The fourth feature from the Pennsylvanian writer-director – whose Sundance-premiered “Listen Up Philip” nabbed the runner-up prize (splitting Lav Diaz and Pedro Costa, no less) at Locarno last August – this janglingly unsettling, darkly comic psychological drama proved to be the hottest ticket at the Berlin International Film Festival’s parallel Forum section. With Perry confirmed as a critically-lauded leading light among younger U.S. indie filmmakers, the enigmatically-titled “Queen of Earth” can expect plentiful festival exposure and appeals as a provocatively debate-sparking candidate for niche theatrical release.
“Mad Men” breakout Moss, the long-suffering girlfriend of Jason Schwartzman in Perry’s last outing, gets a meatier, flashier role here as Catherine, longtime BFF of Waterston’s Virginia – Ginny to her intimates. Struggling to cope with the double-whammy of being dumped by her boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley) and the probable-suicide death of her illustrious artist father, Catherine goes for a week’s “exile” at the rural, lakeside holiday-home owned by Virginia’s parents. As the days pass, the pair are haunted by memories of a similar visit to the same spot one year before, when James had been in attendance.
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Perry and editor Robert Greene switch back and forth between twin time-frames with no fuss or warning – and flashes of virtuoso flair – finding ironic parallels between the happy gathering of the previous summer and the more fraught atmosphere of the present day. It becomes apparent that Catherine has been knocked out of mental equilibrium by her recent traumas, and her aberrant, unpredictable behavior – seemingly exacerbated by the near-constant presence of neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugit), with whom Virginia starts a relationship – puts the pals’ friendship under considerable strain.
While on paper a Stateside, mumblecorey variation on Bergman’s “Persona,” “Queen of Earth” – with its horror-inflected, boldly prominent score by Keegan DeWitt, all ominously sharp strings and horns – is at heart an updated, smarter version of those psychological thrillers of the 60’s and 70’s in which the likes of Susan Strasberg and Susan George came to question their own sanity thanks to the machinations of nefarious manipulators. The perils here are all internal, of course (“You can get out of your someone else’s cycle but you can’t get out of your own.”)
With its retro vibe (Perry even ends on a freeze-frame!), hyper-stylish credits, aristocratic moniker and unblinking distaff emphasis, “Queen of Earth” would make a nifty double-bill partner with Peter Strickland’s current festival-circuit wow “The Duke of Burgundy” (available on VOD in the U.S. now). Like Strickland, Perry has clearly done his cinematic homework, and dutifully nods to Roman Polanski with a couple of visual references to both “Repulsion” and “The Tenant,” as Catherine (named for Deneuve?) becomes increasingly prey to delusions and paranoid hallucinations.
Moss, who in the very first frame of the picture proper appears in a state of extreme emotional duress, goes through the wringer here on more than one occasion, at the service of a screenplay which tries to energetically burrow into its characters’ motivations and neuroses and mostly succeeds, even if there’s a certain waywardness in the final stretches.
Perry’s script – which, not for the first time, includes a couple of sly deliberate malapropisms (“textile” is used in reference to written words; Fugit’s Rich is said to “rebel in the affairs of others”) – goes far beyond the kind of hyper-articulate, oft-hilarious snark for which he’s become known. Indeed, the most effective scene he’s yet come up with is the terrific double-monologue for his two leads: as first one speaks at length then the other, cinematographer Sean Price Williams subtly shifts focus, their faces always just ever-so-slightly flickering under the wan glow of a ceiling-fan lamp.
And although Moss’ is the more obviously attention-grabbing work on display, this feels like a genuinely exciting breakthrough for Waterston, who must register a tricky, ever-shifting combination of concern and contempt as Virginia comes to re-appraise every aspect of a friendship she’d always taken for granted. Having stepped into the role at very short notice when Michelle Dockery had to drop out, Waterston – daughter of the terrific character-actor Sam – turns 35 next month and can gain encouragement from the fact that Julianne Moore was in her mid-thirties before prime parts like “Safe” and “Short Cuts” came her way.
Could it be that, at 5’11”, the rangy, lissom Waterston has been seen as “too tall” by Hollywood casting agents? Whatever the explanation, she now seems to be firmly on the right radars: she plays the high-school girlfriend of Michael Fassbender’s “Steve Jobs” – and mother of his child – in the imminent Danny Boyle biopic. If the Moore comparison holds, an Oscar may follow, perhaps some time around the year 2035.
“Queen of Earth” premiered last week at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.