20th Oct2015

LFF 2015: ‘Queen of Earth’ Review

by Mark Allen

Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley, Kate Lyn Sheil, Keith Poulson | Written and Directed by Alex Ross Perry

queen-earth-cast

When two friends retreat to a lakeside cabin for a week, it’s not a holiday in the strictest sense: Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) is seeking refuge from both her recently dissolved relationship and the grief of her father’s passing. Virginia (Katherine Waterston) initially seems eager to help her friend out of the funk she’s in, but Catherine’s fragile emotional state and the growing animosity between them contribute to a toxic environment that both ultimately get sucked into.

Queen of Earth could be pigeonholed any number of ways – dark comedy, tragic character study, post-mumblecore dramedy, psychological horror – but it’s best taken as a mix of all of the above; like its characters, the film shifts identity regularly, refusing easy categorization. Its exploration of female personalities, relationships and fears (by male director Alex Ross Perry) is reminiscent of similar narratives told by directors in the 1960s & ’70s (Robert Altman and Roman Polanski both spring to mind and were name-checked by Perry in the post-screening Q&A), most notably during the fertile New Hollywood period when filmmakers were given relatively free reign to tell their stories in unconventional ways.

The script keeps us firmly entrenched in Catherine and Virginia’s unhealthy relationship and the cabin they’re staying in, though flashbacks (accessed through a literally flashing, Easy Rider-style editing device) take us back  to an earlier ‘vacation’ they took in which Catherine brought her (now ex-)boyfriend along without asking her friend. The tables are turned in the present when Virginia starts occupying her time with Rich, an overinvolved neighbour played with willful disdain by Patrick Fugit, and Catherine’s attempts at recovery through painting become passive-aggressive exercises.

Other characters crop up in memorable ways – a party scene almost ripped from Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy sees Catherine bothered by imaginary assailants, and at one point she finds a drunk young man outside the cabin, brings him in and whispers (almost to herself), “I could murder you right now and no-one would ever know” – but it’s only Rich that truly rubs Catherine the wrong way. Apart from Virginia, of course. The two leads excel in both delivering the venomous dialogue the script provides and suggesting hidden depths and torments: Moss performs a psychological breakdown with an admirable nakedness and lack of grace, while Waterston’s simultaneous disappointment at her attempts to reconnect with Catherine and resentment for her not appreciating the goodwill proffered by letting her stay at Virginia’s lakehouse is a mix of character we don’t get to see in many films.

Queen of Earth may borrow from plenty of older sources, but it brings them together to create something that stands apart from most other independent dramas today, the film’s emotional realism and welcome lack of sentimentality meeting the clear nostalgia for ’70s filmmaking (the movie is shot in rich, grainy Super 16mm). The isolated setting, heightened performances and creeping score by Keegan DeWitt bring an anachronistic mood to proceedings, with mysterious gaps in time adding to a growing feeling that we’re not seeing the whole picture. Before long it’s clear that nobody’s going to leave this story just fine and dandy, but the ending offers us some cryptic solace while snatching away any hope the audience might harbour. This isn’t a film that’s going to offer easy answers or resolutions, and all the richer for it.

Queen of Earth played at the BFI London Film Festival 2015, which ran from 8 – 17 October. It does not yet have a UK theatrical release date.

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