Alexander Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth suggests a beguiling, fractured-mirror psychodrama on the surface, nearly begging to be misrepresented as reduction or mere pastiche of ’70s art house post-Hitchcock from an unnamed, presumably chilly, Middle European far off nether realm. Un-suture the cluttered hash-work of staples, though, and the metaphorical blood runs white-hot in this ostensibly cool-blue chamber piece of glistening neurosis belying autumnal fading friendship. There’s warmth and liveliness here, darkly comedic energy and even occasional buoyancy, enough to keep the tale from functioning as arid, manipulative still-water but only so much to ensure this emotional swampland never turns into a lightweight river raid. If this is Bergman, it’s flying for the left-of-center targets, the more unhinged ones like Hour of the Wolf. Don’t call it Persona 2.0.
Queen of Earth threads a fine needlepoint, with unforgiving, arid post-Bergman psychobabble lying in wait on one side and an unnecessarily queasy Euro-horror unsure of its exploitation-circuit credentials on the other. But Perry, with cinematographer Sean Price Williams in tow like a devil over his shoulder, pulls double duty suturing old wounds and uncoiling others, tightly winding around the characters like a crawling king snake whilst excavating caves of flesh with dissociative editing scalpels and a quiet puncture wound of a soundtrack.
So many films in the past decade have tackled, with questionable results, haphazard neo-exploitation or prim-and-proper modern vintage art house fare, with neither boasting the ingenuity or joie de vivre to come up for air while clawing their respective ways deep into their own rear ends. Perry perches himself between the trends with the traumatized playfulness of one and the indomitable gravity of the other, carving out his own niche and proving himself a filmmaker with a difference.
It’s what you might come across if John Carpenter remade Persona in 1977 with everything to prove; a work that uses film history as a springboard rather than an end point. Yet Perry certainly isn’t a filmmaker with everything to prove – he reveals no pangs of desire for expanding his circle of admirers or broadening his commercial scope with Queen of Earth, a work where the intimate psychological hinterlands of his two characters claw themselves onto the rhythms of Perry’s stylish but never ostentatious camera and his grainy, hazily-remembered visuals (above all, Queen of Earth is a great DVD film; the crystal clarity of Blu-Ray or in Hi-Def would be sacrilege). And, especially, his temporally provocative incisions of time forgotten and, most gravidly, time remembered.
It’s a subfuscous day when Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) accepts an invite from friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) following the former undergoing dueling tragedies of parental death and relationship termination. The nature of the invite is a trip to a violently quiet mountain cabin owned by Virginia’s family, a cabin that has preyed on the emotions of these two women before. The duration of the trip is either negligible or ultimate, with Kubrickian intertitles informing us of the passing of days and signifying the torrential mortal coil of time’s unwavering forward trudge whilst also revealing the essential lies festering underneath that notion of time. As the two women struggle to live around one another, the film spasms not only with a feather-light mist hiding subfuscous secrets but also with breathlessly short reprieves to past events in the cabin, cuts primed like nightwatchmen warning us of things to come from the past. Time will doggedly persist forward, the film informs us, but don’t make the mistake of assuming it will forget what has come before.
The edits recall underbelly cinemas of the past, most notably Nicolas Roeg’s seminal Don’t Look Now, in their symphonic and deathless spider’s web of interconnected and contradicting moments across time. The film becomes a patchwork clause of memory and feeling that bend and break nominal time and capture two humans pretending to venture forward when they are really mired in the murky fog of past lives pining themselves to the present and jutting into the mind like metronomic knives. The editing rhythms pitch Perry as not only a mimic of Polanski and Bergman, but an iterative cinematic mind all his own.
The ambidextrous qualities of the film’s mesmeric flow are both disconcertingly anti-narrative and transcendentally narrative-clarifying at an emotional level, concocting a brutal thriller’s palette of unsure rhymes and reasons while also burrowing into the mind’s of the two characters – whose relationship was reversed a year before, with Virginia the post-tragic and Catherine afflicted with the blood of life. The twitchy editing disrupts the flow of secular time, surely, but without the film’s peculiar intercuts, the emotional space between the two women, who have lived each other’s lives before, would be misunderstood and the current state of affairs lost to time. Hanging on to the present, to one’s sanity, is clarified in a wonderfully physical, tactile way in the celluloid itself.
Which says nothing of the incontestable chamber drama playing out between Moss and Waterston, who avoid a neat “fire and ice” mapping not only in how quickly and dynamically the nature of each character’s personality morphs from scene to scene but in how the two are irreconcilable individually by the fundamental virtues of the narrative to begin with. Just as the editing episodes pregnantly flip the roles of Catherine and Virginia from past to present,so too do the actresses slide from bombast and temperament to frigidity and fractured outer shells within seconds. The film’s truest moments practically dare us to dialect with their faces, such as when the camera runs an eight minute bender between the two faces without cutting as the power relationships change within seconds. Minutes like these encapsulate a humanity lingering against a dying light, sequestering Queen of Earth at a remove from cloying crypto-artiness and ensuring the craft is in service of a paean to the human soul.
The film is replete with dialogue in this scene, as it is elsewhere, but it is never expository; the inability of the characters to quiet around each other reveals not what they can share to one another but how much they hide. The dialogue intentionally evokes white noise. They speak not to know one another but to mask how little they have to know, recounting their own lives to themselves in symmetry but not in harmony so that they can feel like they have something to say to one another. The two women converge in the nominal present, transitioning from trying to relate to one another to pantomiming a barely remembered friendship for the sake of hardly strung-together mental stability. Perry’s greatest achievement is not the space within his characters but the forgotten and increasingly tactile relationship between them.
The film’s visual contrasts – the lanky frame usually filmed from below, greying fashion sense, and darkened, heretical umber of Waterston’s eyes against the doughy slightness, pastel frailty, and sanctimonious blue whirlpools of Moss’ – suggest Waterston as a power-mad villain-ness garbed in indifference. But the film teases out alternatives to the very end. Moss’ whiteness sours her into a pallid ghostly specter floating quietly, dismally, across the frame, her sanity questioned by her very pigmentation. Queen of Earth is a horror film in tone and atmosphere but not in name, but in true terrorizing fashion, the nastiest fallout and the most pressing consequence happened long before the film’s nominal narrative was a whisper in the characters’ faint lives.