By James Slaymaker.
Alex Ross Perry’s latest feature, Queen of Earth, explores similar thematic territory to his first three (Impolex, The Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip), but marks a radical expansion of his artistic palette in regards to both form and content. What largely makes the film fascinating when considered alongside his existing body of work is that many of the techniques he’s previously used to heighten everyday moments of social anxiety into absurdist comedy are here used to transform them into nightmarish delirium. It also makes explicit a number of ideas only hinted at in Perry’s prior work: Philip, Colin and J.R. all seem like they should be on anxiety medication, but here mental illness is frequently spoken of; and the underlining issue of class is finally brought to the fore- specifically, the question of whether Perry’s characters would be so bothered by their petty insecurities and grudges if they didn’t occupy a social bubble that fosters self-examination and the expectation of absolute personal fulfilment.
As with Listen Up Philip, the chief thematic focus here is the circular, self-defeating patterns of behaviour solipsists construct for themselves and are unable to escape. Both films even begin in a similar place: Philip deliberately cuts ties with a number of acquaintances he believes to be holding him back from professional success as a way of feeding his narcissistic supply, whileQueen of Earth’s Catherine is forcibly cut out of the lives of the two men closest to her – her father, who committed suicide following a lifelong battle with depression, and her long-term boyfriend James, who feels suffocated by the extreme emotional demands she recurrently places on him. Reeling from these events, Catherine retreats to the summer house owned by her best friend Virginia (though, as Elizabeth frequently her, Virginia doesn’t technically own the place, her parents do). Best friend relationships are usually romanticized on-screen, but Perry brilliantly dissects the paranoia, selfishness, compulsive one-upmanship, wilful blindness, over-possessiveness and suffocating over-familiarity on which they tend to be built. Elizabeth and Virginia bring out the best and the worst in each other simultaneously; they communicate almost entirely in the form of semi-jokey teasing and resentment-fuelled spats, each conversation marked by a commingling between of sweetness and bitterness. Both the prickliness and the co-dependency that informs their relationship are largely down to the fact that each one tends to use the other as a yardstick against which they can measure their own success in life. In one scene, Virginia aggressively lambasts the dull clerical work Catherine does for her father’s company, before grandiosely describing her as a great artist who hasn’t realized her potential yet, and then mocking her nepotism. This is a toxic dynamic, but one that is maintained out of a mixture of mutual apathy, complacency and masochism. They seem to stay together less because they actually enjoy each other’s company than because they can’t imagine living without one another.
The narrative arc that develops is the inverse of that of The Color Wheel. In the earlier film, every interaction the central siblings share with the outside world brings them slightly closer together, until they realize that they’re pretty much unable to function outside of the insular environment they’ve created for themselves. Here, every intrusion from an external party deepens the rift between Elizabeth and Virginia. This is why Virginia’s current beau Rich gradually becomes the closest thing the piece has to a villain. Elizabeth is instantly repelled by his laid back, cocky demeanour, which he picks up on and responds to with his own brand of jokey hostility. But what’s more of a problem is that Elizabeth fears that her own emotional hysteria is draining Virginia to the extent that she’s thinking of removing her from her life completely and using Rich to fill the void left in her absence. As a result, Elizabeth increasingly retreats into herself as a form of self-protection; her descent into madness is tied to her solipsism. Yet her dangerous habit of externalizing her anger makes her feel as if she’s being shut out by everybody around her. With Virginia increasingly relegated to the role of peace-maker, it’s easy to imagine her character transforming to a simple symbol of bourgeois civility, but the dynamic Perry develops between them grows increasingly nuanced and complex. Virginia can’t help but revel in schadenfreude and Catherine can’t help but make Virginia feel guilty about her inadequacy to properly support her emotionally.
Queen of Earth also raises the question of how we define selfhood in the age of psychotherapy and mass pharmaceuticals, an age where certain personality traits are clinically diagnosed as symptoms of a psychosomatic illness. To what extent can Elizabeth’s worst characteristics be written off as simply aspects of a disease and how responsible is she for her behaviour? Like most of Perry’s characters, Elizabeth prefers to see herself purely as a victim – of an illness, of the cruelty of others, of circumstance – in order to avoid accounting for her actions. Yet by doing so she renders herself unable to rectify the maladies that weigh her down.
Though Perry’s previous films were heavily dialogue-driven, Queen of Earth is orchestrated around lengthy stretches of silence. This change in tenor is largely due to the fact that Catherine deals with her anxiety by lapsing into extended periods of isolation, whereas Perry previously focused on characters that did the same by going on hysterical verbal benders. Both techniques, however, serve the same purpose: to allow them to dissociate from the present moment and mentally elevate small injustices to the level stuff of grand tragedy. Perry’s camera is attuned to the physical sensations surrounding Catherine, which she largely seems to be nauseated by: a moulding, uneaten salad; the movements of mouths during eating. Appropriately, when Catherine’s feeling at her worst, she massages her face. Interstitial shots of architecture and geography abound, but instead of actually mapping the space of the cabin and its surroundings (which remains vague throughout), they act as a constantly shifting mirror of Catherine’s internal state. There’s an emphasis on the minor, neatly ordered rituals characters cling onto to soothe their minds – morning jogs, painting, turning lights on and off, preparing food. These routines, rather than being a visual short-hand for stifling routine, instead come across as a bedrock of domesticity that helps to keep them sane whilst being surrounded by emotional turmoil. To add to this sense of rawness, the choppy edits are governed more by emotional logic than narrative cause-and-effect. Indeed, Perry’s visual style is more oblique and fragmented here than it’s ever been: subjects often have portions obscured by objects in the foreground or cut off by the edges of the frame; slow zooms and dissolves abruptly disrupt the jagged flow of the images; most shots run very short or very long. During dialogue scenes, the camera flits between mismatched close-ups, but rarely lingers on the face of whoever’s talking for very long, instead focusing on those listening. Sometimes conversations even take place in two shots in which the talker is in shallow focus while the listener is sharp. The sparingly used, easily delineated flashbacks of Philip have evolved into a deliberately disorientating structure that continuously between two timelines. Each temporal shift introduced by a simple hard cut, and it sometimes takes a few moments for the viewer to orientate themselves.
Because this subtly hyper-real tone is so carefully sustained throughout, the film’s few lapses into full-on dream logic are seamless: Catherine’s late night discovery of a passed out passer-by who can’t recall whether or not he’d visited the cabin the year before; a climatic party scene that transforms the mundane small talk and incessant disingenuous perkiness of such get-togethers into claustrophobic horror. Every interaction is underlined by a latent internal violence, which too only fully unleashes in the final moments. Perry is a filmmaker keenly aware of the interrelations between his films (at one point, Virginia is briefly seen reading a copy of Ike Zimmerman’s Madness and Woman) and deeply weary of settling into a creative rut. Queen of Earth marks a substantial step forward creatively and cements his status as one of the country’s most fascinating young filmmakers.
James Slaymaker is a freelance critic and essayist. He is a regular contributor for the online journal Alternate Takes and has also written for MUBI Notebook, McSweeney’s and White Coffee Magazine.