Alex Ross Perry is an interesting dark humorist of the independent cinema scene, as evidenced quite clearly by last year’s Listen Up Philip. He was very literary sensibilities that haven’t really been popular since old Hollywood, where star power was more important than it ever would be after and the best films were remembered for their performances more than anything else. Though humor isn’t absent from Perry’s latest endeavor, to call Queen of Earth a comedy would be somewhat a stretch, as this film is less evocative of Perry’s acerbic wit as it is of his ability to coax a brilliant performance from Elizabeth Moss, who for once lets go of the subtle nuances of her characters to delve deep into psychological peril.
Two friends, Catharine (Moss) and Ginny (Katherine Waterston), take their yearly trip to a cabin in the woods in order to escape from the stresses of their everyday lives. The previous year, Catharine had brought along her boyfriend as Ginny was going through a difficult break-up, leaving Ginny to deal with her depression alone. This year, Catharine has similarly lost her romantic interest, but also has lost her embezzling father to prison and thus is in a similar situation when Ginny brings along her romantic interest, Rich (Patrick Fugit).
What’s interesting about this scenario is that Catharine’s character is perhaps one of the most feminist portrayals of the madwoman trope ever put to film. Moss’s performance is reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman’s body of work, with the same kinds of creepy infantilization and incoherent murmurs interspersed with nonsensical laughter. However, Catherine’s madness is a metaphor for something more than pure hysteria, as she is a woman conditioned to need the support of a man in order to remain functional. It becomes apparent that her father sheltered her from the world with wealth, thereby fostering a dependent personality that needs dominant masculinity present in order to maintain a personal identity. Similarly, the flashbacks to her past relationship show her as completely co-dependent and in denial of such co-dependency when an embittered Ginny points it out. Catherine may be psychologically weak, but her weakness is understandable based on her conditioning to believe that men need to define her role in life, and her inability to cope is a direct result of that male manipulation.
As fantastic as this portrayal is, though, the film is not without its faults. There is a late scene where Catharine and Ginny throw a party for no discernable reason, and the only purpose is to stage a hackneyed everyone-attacking-me delusion for Catharine. Furthermore, there are times when Ginny’s presence seems entirely superfluous, especially since her character exists primarily as a grounded foil for Catharine’s insanity. Ginny is supposed to represent how Catharine could have developed had her upbringing not emotionally crippled her, but she feels irrelevant when Moss sells Catharine’s struggle so effectively.
If you’re looking for something below the radar this Oscar season, Queen of Earth is a pretty great alternative to the accolades and fanfare of the next few months. It won’t be getting any awards, but it certainly deserves to garner a fan following.