Queen of Earth (Film Review)
'You click your tongue and you revel in the affairs of others. You are worthless. You don't know anything about me.' - Catherine, Queen of Earth
Queen of Earth is an intentionally claustrophobic and microscopic study of a friendship torn apart by madness. Elisabeth Moss puts in a spellbinding performance as Catherine, and Katherine Waterston an equally impressive and subtle performance as Virginia. You could say that Virginia is the more steady of the two friends, but throughout the film she seems to be plagued by a sadness that is never fully given reason or substance. I believe that was an intentional mystery left unresolved by director Alex Ross Perry. Perhaps her sadness is brought on by the increasingly erratic and unpredictable actions of Catherine, perhaps she herself is riddled with depression, but I like the fact it is left open to interpretation.
The film takes place over a week where they are both staying at Virginia’s uncle’s house in an isolated spot by the lake, however the film continually flips back and forth between the past and present. The origins of the hurt and cruelty that the pair seem to inflict upon one another start off in the previous summer where they each have a boyfriend, but these men seem to be nothing more than pawns between their arguments, and in that past summer it is Catherine who seems to be stronger than Virginia, best demonstrated by the way she chides Virginia for not having a job and living out a perpetually lazy existence by the lake. But after losing her renowned father to a suicide brought on by depression, Catherine’s present circumstances change. She was her father’s assistant, a position Virginia pokes fun at in one scene in which she refers to it as a position achieved only by nepotism, but the changed Catherine doesn’t seem to care how she achieved it, only that now she is just like Virginia, jobless and content to do nothing, a fate that she explains she never chose.
However instead of doing nothing at all, Catherine does spend her time painting landscapes and drawing portraits of the sad Virginia. But that aside, the house by the lake is isolated, a perfect hive for her depression to grow, and as the past mêlées with the present, we see that beneath the quiet butter wouldn’t melt exterior, she has a cruel side that manifests itself from the sense of loss and uncertainty that lurks beneath her skin. The film is shot mainly in close-up and that seems to serve two purposes, to bring the viewer empathetically closer to the characters and their pain, and also to give the viewer a sense of claustrophobia with the need to pull back. From this vantage point we are forced to observe the madness from an acute angle, forced to feel the sense of inescapability, to feel trapped by the short focus, and in a sense, to feel the introspection that is eating away at both of these characters from the inside out.
When the camera does pan out it is usually around the lake, which I see as a representation of the open world and its dangers. It is around the lake in one scene that Catherine is told to wear a lifejacket, but the real danger is masked, or rather not in the physical world at all. Catherine isn’t dangerous, but her inner madness is. Catherine isn’t cruel, but her madness is. She cannot escape it; just as we the viewer cannot escape her sad blue eyes, or see them from afar, or from a retrospective viewpoint. Rather we are trapped with her madness, and we can empathise and feel sorry for the way others treat her, and we can understand and almost root for her as she goes into a rant towards the end of the film, aimed at Virginia’s intrusive male friend who lives close by and always seems to be around to taunt her. She rants about how people like him defines what is wrong with the world, and how the people in it bring about the inner suffering of the innocent, and how bad people perpetuate the cycle of madness in us all.
There are many mysteries left unresolved within the film and it lends itself well to repeated viewing. But a film that is so deft to reason, and so rich in ambiguity, will of course alienate a lot of people from Alex Ross Perry’s vision. This film doesn’t end in a conventional sense, but rather it starts again, capturing its audience in the repetitive whirlwind from which there is no escape, and just as madness has no coherent or absolute end, neither does this film.
The film is available on dvd and blu-ray as part of the Masters of Cinema collection