Madness and Women: Queen of Earth (Alex Ross Perry, 2015)

 I’m excited. A final still frame of Elisabeth Moss trapped in laughter gives way to credits and I feel disheveled, invigorated, surprised and unsure. I want to say what I experienced was something close to amazement, but everything is hard to grasp, because Queen of Earth is the type of movie that one cannot place their fingers upon fully at the close. It’s a little too vague in every way imaginable to simply be about one thing, and Perry is a genius at structuring his pictures so that narrative feels resolutely important to the proceedings. In Queen of Earth‘s case the one-day-for-a-full-week horror movie as anti-vacation at a Lake House recalls the first act of Je, Tu, Il, Elle refashioned through Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, which makes things feel familiar, but altogether different from the disciples it so obviously takes from.

Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston) are best friends, but they seem to hate each other. They share every last detail of their lives in long conversations that link them as spiritual sisters. When Catherine’s father dies after killing himself Catherine shuts herself off from the world to rehabilitate herself and her career as an artist at Virginia’s vacation house that belongs to her parents (they both benefit from nepotism in some regards). While spending the week in this cabin things begin to unravel for Catherine as the vacation from herself becomes a series of avoiding contact with other people, bodily breakdown and an evolving sense of inwardness that leaves her in a panicked state of depression. The same thing that eventually killed her father.

The narrative of how close these women are slightly indulges in the persona/swap trope made famous by Mulholland Dr., 3 Women and godmother picture Persona. Moss and Waterstone at first seem to only exist in front of one another, and a long take sequence of a conversation physically links them. “This makes us the same”, Virginia says at one point. Catherine enters in one frame and Virginia reappears in another. This is all perhaps just a smokescreen though, as a means of perpetuating the idea of female friendship as both endearing and toxic that Perry seems to buy into. The yin-yang quality of good and evil and love and hate seems to exist in every moment between the two. It’s ludicrous, but quickly twists into a singular experience, and the picture that had once presented itself as a sister to those others becomes Catherine’s film entirely.

That movie would not work if Elisabeth Moss were not on fucking point throughout. Her ascension as one of the best actors working today began with Mad Men, and has brought us other fine performances such as Top of the Lake and another Alex Ross Perry picture, Listen Up Philip, but it is here in Queen of Earth where her skills as an actor have been brought to the forefront and should, hopefully, guarantee her the chance to play any role she desires in the future. There’s one scene in this movie where Catherine has been sabotaged, and her reclusion has been disrupted by a party that Virginia is throwing. Something seems off though, and her anxiety in being around others forces her to have a panic attack and she envisions them touching her body. She’s been discussing with Virginia the pain her bones are causing her previously so this is at the apex of her uncomfortability around people. She cannot handle this in the slightest, so the following morning when another woman innocently touches Catherine’s face, it is a moment of utmost horror, and Moss’ reaction to this is devastating. I could barely breathe in this moment, and it was then that I knew the insular nature of her character was something I was completely enveloped in due to Moss’ performance.

Queen of the Earth is also a testament to the power tone can have over a horror movie. Perry has cited Roman Polanski’s The Apartment Trilogy in interviews when discussing his work here, and it shows, and as he considers these movies to be comedies in one way or another his movie isn’t without moments of bleak laughter. This however, is an unsettling movie, and with each passing day of Catherine waking up in the same outfit with the garbage of barely eaten food piling up around her the claustrophobia of the setting overtakes any sense of black comedy and Queen lurches towards pure horror. There’s a disorienting effect surrounding Perry’s camerawork and Sean Price Williams incredible super 16 cinematography. Perry astounds with his ability with a camera, creating split screens out of real space and framing bodies in opposite ends of functionality in one moment and dissolving imagery of the nature that surrounds them the next. I’m most impressed by his ability to shift gears when the film calls for it, because when Queen of Earth moves into the depression fueled failings of Catherine after a male neighbour (Patrick Fugit in a role that undoes his Almost Famous popularity) is interjected into the plot he deftly captures her inability to function by altering his lens from Catherine and Virginia’s shared mental state to just Catherine’s. His repetitious framing on her ever-dirty nightgown and unkempt hair, the dirtyness of her body, the bed she lays in, and the cave she is building around herself creates a sense of isolation within the character and the viewer and with the power of Moss’ note for note perfect performance Perry can achieve everything he set out for.

This is a great movie, maybe an amazing one, but that’s unknown after a single viewing. At current times the feeling of being overwhelmed takes over me. The thought of chasing this movie and trying to pin down what it means or how it gets there is an ecstasy. Unlocking a picture can bring with it its own merits, but unraveling the mystery of why a film is so effecting towards you personally is something else entirely. Queen of Earth feels like the sort of luggage I’ll be carrying with me for the rest of my life.

Queen of Earth will be in limited release August 26, 2015.