To watch Queen of Earth is an interesting and beautiful exercise: when you can’t decide whether to sob or grin, just remember that humanity can be the ugliest thing in the world, if you don’t need it. But hey, that’s the first reason why we need more dramatic comedies such as this one.
Director: Alex Ross Perry, 90 mins.
As I rushed to the stairs to find a decent seat at the Queen of Earth Berlinale premiere, I stumbled across Joe Swanberg heading to the row reserved for the film’s crew. It came as a surprise because I didn’t know he was among the producers of the film and yet I felt suddenly at ease—almost as though I was at home. Swanberg’s films belong to that fortunate genre that breathes “goodness” even when it’s troubled. A specific quality of films that happen to make the idea of “plain art” just great. Sometimes it’s amazing to come across somethings that’s smooth and domestic, and that’s exactly the familiarity stemming from Swanberg’s works. Yet as far as I could remember, Alex Ross Perry’s previous film—Listen Up Philip, by many defined as a masterpiece—wasn’t quite keen on the idea of familiarity, but rather on people’s inability to be “good humans”—whatever that means—as they move unhappily through their lives. Still, I thought the collaboration between the two seemed to make sense… and the film hadn’t even started yet.
When Catherine (Elizabeth Moss) is left by the boyfriend shortly after her father (and successful artist) committed suicide, she travels to her best friend’s vacation house. The plan is to relax by the peaceful lake and recover from the life-changing traumas, while friendly Virginia (Katherine Waterston) sticks around, seemingly to be support her. “Seemingly” may be one key word of Queen of Earth, which finds its only sure and fixed element in the declared temporal structure which divides the plot into the seven days of the week. Keeping that as the only secure narrative grid, Perry plays around with Catherine’s (and ours) perception of time, employing the most traditional flashbacks as well as odd manipulations of day- and night times. If memory retrieval is used to recount the past and happy year, when Catherine and the then boyfriend stayed at Virginia’s lake cabin—the girlfriends’ roles inverted (Virginia being unhappy and Catherine radiant), the present time frame is a collection of distorted days collapsing into oddly stretched nights, with the only element of natural light providing some sort of reference. Hence we forget that the film spans seven days and spend most of the time wondering what is going on. We can’t even decide whether the focus is on Catherine’s descent towards definitive madness or the relationship between the two friends.
Perry cited Roman Polanski as a main inspiration, mentioning Repulsion and The Tenant as references for Catherine’s deliberate loosening of her self. Nevertheless, what makes her nerves hard to hold together is the ambivalent attitude of Virginia, who seems hesitant to offer support and more likely to surrender to some old unspoken resentment which is not to be revealed by the viewer. When a neighbor “with benefits” (Patrick Fugit) starts visiting Virginia, Catherine is not at all pleased: as she manifests her strong dislike, he responds by confronting her presumed flaws (to be a spoiled brat, arrogant and with no actual merit but the one of being a prominent artists’ relative) in a rather irritating fashion. He is indeed an irritating guy, behaving in an unreasonable aggressive way… but still, why is Catherine reacting so aggressivley, if he’s just teasing her with nonsense? Again, we share mixed feelings with the protagonist, who we learn hasn’t slept in days. Whilst her insomnia emerges as a somewhat intuited turning point, she laments that “My face hurts,” and yet we know that there are no bones or teeth or skin to be fixed, but something deeper we are not totally allowed to know.
Queen of the Earth partakes in that current of films exploring “female craziness:” and whilst it does in a rather conventional way, it is still an entertaining one (specially when we find Virginia reading Madness and Women, by fictional Ike Zimmerman aka the selfish macho writer of Listen Up Philip). During the screening Q&A, someone fairly pointed out that Queen of the Earth is also a film about female relationships, about how friendship can offer both the greatest comfort and the acutest pain in difficult moments. However, even the most turbulent friendship needs the solid basis of mutual understanding and empathetic communication. It’s here, one has the impression, that the script manifests its weaknesses. Rather frequently the two girls attack each other with obnoxious recriminations to the extend that they don’t seem to be friends at all. But again, a key word of Queen of Earth is perhaps to “seem” something which is not happening at all—or is happening in the greatest possible way. Also, Perry mentioned “privacy and entitlement” as main themes of the film. This is quite accurate if we decide to stand up for Cate’s right to be dramatically and dangerously depressed. This is an option. At the same time the film questions our full capacity of judgement and we become a little bit insane as well. Couldn’t it be that it is Virginia the one needing a friend in first place?
Despite the gloomy tones, Queen of Earth is a humorous movie, the sort of dramatic comedy Perry is known for. Surely the cast participated in creating such an ambivalent environment. Although Elizabeth Moss proposes a schizophrenic variation of the confused and vulnerable woman she already depicted in The One I Love, the performances delivered by her and Waterston are outstanding and, to some extent, cover up what might have gone missing in the script. Two other elements contributed to create the fishy-by-the-lake atmosphere dominating the entire film: music score and cinematography. Composer Keegan DeWitt created a fan of somewhat muffled tunes often evolving into the creepiest crescendos and thus infusing some scenes with awkward horror, in a nearly psychedelic twist. The film draws a great deal of its beauty from the soft and grainy texture from being shot in Super 16, which adds to the oneiric-light shades of the lake setting. The work of cinematographer Sean Prince Williams is here on full display and it’s probably his merit if we loved Listen Up Philip and Heaven Knows What by the Safdie brothers so much.
Like its romantic yet bold title, Queen of Earth is an ambiguous film both for the viewership and the protagonists. It leaves us puzzled, insomuch as we struggle to understand whether the characters share their disorienting and desperate feelings with us, or they just played us, fooled us with the oldest tricks of cinema.