Aside from the 16mm photography (courtesy of regular DP Sean Price Williams) and spiky dialogue, Queen of Earth has little in common with Alex Ross Perry’s recent directorial breakthrough, Listen Up Philip. That film, led by an acerbic performance from an asshole Jason Schwartzman, felt Andersonian in tone, knowingly pretentious and collegiate. It was, at heart, an intelligent, self-confident comedy.
In contrast, Queen of Earth is a lot grittier and more dramatic, burrowing into a dark corner of the human mind. It exposes the frailties and insecurities of relationships, both platonic and romantic, as Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston) deal with the break-ups and chaos in their lives.
Action flits across two visits – a year apart – at a secluded lake house, as memories blur and collide, showing how Catherine and Virginia’s friendship has disintegrated – or arguably not changed that much – in the space of 12 months.
There’s a Hitchcockian sense of unease as paranoia, self-consciousness, and jealousy consume the two women. Keegan DeWitt’s stunning score is a key contributor to the mood, creeping along in the background until surfacing at vital moments to punctuate the tenor of the scene.
An autumnal, sepia wash casts a film across the screen, locking the stock into a time capsule and making Queen of Earth feel like a newly unearthed relic from the ‘70s. The overblown highlights seem to represent the exposed weaknesses and sensitive spots of Moss’s mind, as her fragile mental state comes under attack.
Moss and Waterston deliver such casual brilliance so regularly you begin to take it for granted. They elevate Perry’s already excellent script with two performances of the utmost intensity. Moss confirms her position as one of the most promising young actresses around, while Waterston isn’t far behind after recent work on Inherent Vice.
Queen of Earth is a complex and merciless portrayal of grief, or depression, or jealousy, or loneliness. Whatever you want to call it, the state of mind inhabited by the film is one that you will recognise at least some part of. The drama swirls in circles, a little directionless; a tornado rather than a lightning bolt, but the intensity and depth of the emotions on display are undeniable. On the strength of his films so far, Alex Ross Perry is a real talent to keep an eye on, particularly if he’s got key collaborators Elisabeth Moss and Sean Price Williams on board.
Words by Tom Bond