The last time director Alex Ross Perry teamed up with Elisabeth Moss it was for the underwhelming Listen Up, Phillip (underwhelming for me, at least). Their latest film pays tribute to works like Picnic at Hanging Rock or, more accurately, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, in its story of a woman on the verge of madness. With a luminous performance by Moss, as well as strong roles for Katherine Waterston and Patrick Fugit, Queen of Earth picks at the scabs of female friendship, relationships, and identity, to frightening effect.
As a means of getting over a breakup, Catherine (Moss) goes up to her best friend Ginny’s (Waterston) lake house. Unfortunately, Ginny’s burgeoning relationship with Rich (Fugit) threatens to ruins the girls getaway, and friendship.
Where Ross Perry’s last film followed a cad’s relationships, Queen of Earth tells about the loss of identity that comes with starting a relationship – how “cripplingly codependent” people become – and the sense of isolation finding one’s “other half” can bring to friends. Catherine is dumped in the film’s opening scene, one of many grand moments for Moss to act her ass off. From there we get a glimpse into the relationship that just ended, and how Catherine found herself torn between two identities: one pleasing to her boyfriend, and the other trying to be a good friend to Ginny who, herself, has gone through a breakup.
The scales tip naturally throughout the film; Ginny starts the film depressed before finding happiness at the expense of her friend (although the film does take away this revelation with a pointed moment wherein Ginny says one day she won’t be there for her friend in a similar situation). Whereas Catherine starts the film happy and optimistic only to end a hollow shell. The two even start mimicking each other, showing their bond and the cycle that generally comes through the progression of a relationship. In many ways, the intention is showing how friendships act as their own romantic entanglement. The two women unknowingly end up pushing the other away for the sake of a man, only to become resentful of each other because of it.
The audience is left wondering where the line between selfishness and love takes hold. Much of the film sees Catherine through the eyes of others, particularly Ginny’s new paramour Rich, who finds her to be a spoiled brat glomming off the success of men. That’s certainly one interpretation, and Moss’ deteriorating mental state leaves you wondering how much is genuine madness or just a desire for drama and attention. Suffering the loss of her father and boyfriend, sympathy for Catherine is there, but too often she deflects onto blaming others for everything, including her father’s suicide. An amazing speech directed at Rich leaves the audience dazzled, terrified, and aware of Catherine’s blind desire to make things about her. She’s self-centered, but it comes from a recognizable place, as many who have suffered grief (or just a bad day) are desperate to blame others for everything.
Ross Perry takes from the playbook of several great films, creating a smorgasboard of inspiration, from the “Queen of Earth” font – splayed across a distraught Moss’ face – that wouldn’t seem out of place in a film by Wes Anderson or Sofia Coppola; the melancholic, pastoral location is reminiscent of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. There’s also a touch of Frances Ha, with the emphasis on female friendships, and their changes and fluidity.
However, as previously stated, the closest cousin to Queen of Earth is Polanski’s Repulsion. Like Catherine Deneuve character, Moss’ Catherine fights demons – personal, imaginary, literal? – when left in isolation. Watching Moss’ transformation from optmistic sweetheart to shell-shocked maniac is terrifying. Her eyes convey so much, and that’s whether she’s happy or sad. A moment alone during a party leaves her besieged from garishly made up monsters, and the terror is evident on her face. Moss owns the film, and there’s just as much fear in her giving a cold-blooded speech to a man, as the shy giggle she gives Ginny after her friend has discovered she’s talking to herself on the phone. And her declaration that “I could murder your right now and no one would know” leaves you downright haunted.
Katherine Waterston plays subtler as Ginny. Starting out angry and afraid of doing anything with her life, Ginny lives life on permanent vacation. She’s just as spoiled as Catherine, yet her support for her friend never wavers. This is another solid performance for Waterston, and one that’s more nuanced than her previous turn in Inherent Vice. The surprise, though, is Patrick Fugit as Rich. Long the gawky kids of films like Almost Famous, Fugit plays Rich as a righteous jerk. His assessment of Catherine is correct, and he doesn’t treat her with kid gloves, but her obviously precarious mental state leaves you wondering if he’s deliberately furthering her hatred of him.
In the end, Queen of Earth is about love, and how people can love too much or too little. Moss’ unsettling performance warrants this worth seeing on its own, but Waterston and Fugit also give enticing performances. Perry creates a metaphorical horror film, while expanding on the questions of identity and companionship originally seen in his last film.