Friday, December 18, 2015
Queen of Earth
By the time Catherine exits “Queen of Earth,” her frown has turned upside down and a grimace of abject misery has transformed into a vision of manic happiness as if she had traded in her tragedy mask for a comedy one. That it’s unclear which face is scarier, more unnerving, is in keeping with the director Alex Ross Perry’s gift for destabilization, for setting a mood only to violently upend it with cutting looks, dissonant musical chords and off-kilter camera angles. That Catherine seems to be swapping theater masks even as Ms. Moss brings tremendous depth of feeling to the role is in line with the arch self-consciousness of “Queen of Earth,” an art film in quotation marks.
If Alex Ross Perry’s previous film, “Listen Up Philip,” aspired to the kaleidoscopic narrative density of a John Fowles or William Gaddis, his new “Queen of Earth” carries the spiky intensity and tart aftertaste of a John Cheever short story, as it observes the psychological breakdown of a young woman coping (badly) with a series of abrupt life changes. An unnerving, acidly funny work that fosters an acute air of dread without ever fully announcing itself as a horror movie, Perry’s fourth feature may unfold on a smaller canvas than the expansive “Philip,” but is every bit as sure of what it wants to do and how to get there, built around an utterly fearless central performance by Elisabeth Moss. Audiences who found Perry’s earlier work misanthropic won’t want to touch “Queen” with a 10-foot pole, but heartier souls — and connoisseurs of uncompromising auteur cinema — should rise to the occasion.
A deep-dish cinephile with a pronounced affection for late 1960s/early 1970s alt-Hollywood cinema, Perry is working this time in a style that seems equally influenced by doppelganger narratives like Bergman’s “Persona” and Brian De Palma’s “Sisters,” as well as by the claustrophobic domestic terror of “Repulsion” and Chantal Akerman’s seminal “Jeanne Dielman.” (Perry himself has also cited Woody Allen’s “Interiors” as a key influence.) Here, the obligatory woman on the verge is Catherine (Moss, also credited as a producer), who comes to spend a week of self-imposed “exile” at the lake house of her best friend, Virginia (Katherine Waterston), following the death of her father and a bad breakup from her longtime boyfriend. We are somewhere in the tranquil Hudson River Valley, and the silence is deafening.