The first thing you realize when you watch an Alex Ross Perry movie, is that he is one of the most purely talented directors working today. Most specifically, he is particularly gifted in the postmodern art of parsing through decades of past filmmaker’s work and combining the most pertinent images with a modern sensibility all his own. One superficial, but hugely telling, sign of this talent is how his movies might have the graphic and sonic quality of a seventies production, but take place in contemporary settings.
His latest Queen of Earth, like last year’s Listen Up Philip, starts out with tight handheld close-ups of its protagonist followed by a retro title card. Unlike Philip, which continued with a dynamic move of people storming in and out of heated arguments, this movie is confined to a single set, and finds Perry experimenting with static compositions as he delves into the more uncomfortable corners of his protagonist.
Considering the movie as a whole, the first shot becomes an announcement of the director’s intensions. In that first scene we get an extended close-up of Catherine (Elisabeth Moss), as she deals with the immediate ramifications of breaking up with her boyfriend. We later learn that they had developed a symbiotic relationship where there is no distinction between “you” and “I”, but it’s all a matter of “we.” Needless to say, Catherine is not taking the break-up very well, so she retreats to her best friend Virginia’s (Katherine Waterston) country house in upstate New York. That’s when things start to get really weird, and fantasy becomes reality as Catherine’s grief destroys her psyche.
Catherine is the center of practically every scene in the movie, as Perry dives into an increasingly microscopic examination of the character’s inner life. By the end, we are all but inside the character’s head, but that doesn’t make us understand her any better. If anything, we are more confused. The intense and spare score, and the extreme sound design disorient us. We don’t know what is real and what isn’t. We only see the flashing lights and the intense close-ups. Everything is as heightened and overwhelming as it is in Catherine’s head.
This proves to be a notably clever way to approach the material. Perry focuses ever so definitely on Catherine’s inner life, while Catherine is frenetically obsessed with the world around her, and especially with the way people perceive her. Not only has she just gone through a bad break-up, but the break-up came soon after the death of her father, who she was really close to. Now that both her lover and her father, the two defining people (men) in her life, have disappeared, this woman is completely undone. She is set free, and she doesn’t recognize herself. She is seeing the dark side of the world. How can she survive?
In strictly aesthetic terms, I prefer Perry’s previous movie. Queen of Earth can often feel very slow, but it will be a rewarding experience for any viewer who get a kick out of analyzing specific shots, lines of dialogue, and other such details. It’s a movie whose true nature will only reveal itself after one sits down to think what it all really means. In contrast, Listen Up Philip played with a very entertaining (if sometimes painful) approach to comedy, which is not to say there is no comedy in Queen of Earth. In fact, there are long stretches during which the movie plays as much as a dark comedy as anything else.
In the lead role, Moss gives one of the best performances of the year, and she is particularly great during these “comedic” sequences. Her timing is flawless (helped perhaps by her seven year tenure on Mad Men), and as intensely convincing as she is in her more dramatic breakdown scenes, she is even more impressive when she dives head-on into the darkest, most perverted lines of Perry’s screenplay. Her psychotic delivery is reminiscent, in how hilarious and poignant it manages to be at the same time, to the kind of humor we saw earlier this year in the equally impressive The Duke of Burgundy.
I would be lying if I didn’t say that Queen of Earth sometimes feels more like an exercise than it does a well-rounded movie. The meanings and implications of what exactly is being said seem a little too obtuse for my taste. That being said, you couldn’t find a more successful exercise than this one. If this was meant to be a showcase for Moss and Perry’s talent, then they have crafted themselves one of the most impressive calling cards I have ever seen. And even if I find the movie too murky right now, I should keep in my mind how fast and exponentially Listen Up Philip grew in my estimation in the months after I first saw it.
Grade: 7 out of 10