It begins with the tear-stained face of Elizabeth Moss filling the screen, blue mascara running and chin quivering. Offscreen the voice of a man talks with the this-is-for-your-own-good smugness familiar to millions of women: “You’re being dramatic” and “I’m not looking for you to understand me.” It’s a longtime couple breaking up. At the close of this two-minute sequence the title cards, in exaggerated cursive and colored salmon pink, appear. The influences announce themselves: Polanski, Bergman, Lynch, makers of often powerful films whose interest in women stopped at women in psychological torment. But the boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley) will interest director Alex Ross Perry less than the best friend, Virginia (Katherine Waterston), who has invited Catherine (Moss) to a lake house for what is presumably R&R but turns into another grueling exorcism.
Perry, who directed The Color Wheel and a film called Listen Up Philip in 2014 that I didn’t much like, shoots Queen of Earth as if it were a horror film. Motives are uncertain. Friends show their fangs. Moments of repose portend explosions of rage. Like many directors who want to get more “visual” after a career of being wedded to their scripts, Perry wobbles when he wants to get ineffable; the last half hour is a muddle, and I can assume that he wanted it this way. In recent interviews he has professed an admiration for Interiors, Woody Allen’s drama about three sisters, their frigid mother, and their struggles with sentences that are supposed to be written in English; it’s clear he admires the gesture of following up the Oscar-anointed Annie Hall with a slate-grey ordeal as much as the movie itself. Queen of Earth, however, is better than Interiors – as gesture and movie. Interpret this statement as you will.
Friendships can task as much as any love affair, Perry’s movie says, and never more so than when one friend has a lover and the other has to accommodate. Catherine wants sympathy, especially after her depressive father (“a prominent New York artiste“) dies soon after her breakup. Flashbacks indicate how Catherine herself was insufferable when James was stirring sugar in her own cup of coffee. “Do you realize how cripplingly codependent you are?” Virginia says, smiling falsely. She calls her Smeagol. Now it’s Virgina’s turn. She canoodles with Rich (Patrick Fugit) on sofas while Catherine watches in mute disgust; with his mocking grin, he makes no effort to be likable, and as played by Fugit, he’s like a psychopath checking out the property before a spree (I’m not sure if Perry intended this; Fugit throws the movie out of whack when he appears).
Queen of Earth builds towards two scenes: a nightmarish party at which Catherine has a fit and no one helps; and a monologue she aims at Vanessa that demonstrates Perry has studied Autumn Sonata. “You are why people betray one another…You are why depression exists,” she says, in a scene in a movie he could have titled Scenes From a Friendship. Relieved of the modishness that afflicted Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth is better at exploring a certain kind of inchoate white privileged frustration. The best moments show Catherine at her easel while Virginia swans around in the background, admiring and resentful; it’s probable that in the twenty years they’ve known each other Virginia doesn’t get why her friend paints – an adult revelation that rings true. But Perry isn’t as adept at showing their bond. I don’t understand what draws them together. Could Perry have been so afraid of sentimentality that he excised it from the picture? This explains the tumult of the last twenty minutes; he doesn’t yet have the chops to flesh out the contradictions in Virginia and Catherine’s relationship.