Mean Girls
by Daniel Witkin

Queen of Earth
Dir. Alex Ross Perry, U.S., IFC Films

“I don’t want you to see me like this,” moans Elisabeth Moss’s Catherine in the opening scene of Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth. Contained in a claustrophobic close-up for all but a few short moments of the scene, Catherine veers between sobbing self-pity and vindictive hostility as she is left by her boyfriend, who, to make matters worse, has been cheating on her. “My face hurts,” she’ll say later. It’s a statement that cuts in multiple directions. Sobbing, sweating, and hissing, her visage transformed by large black patches of makeup under her eyes, she presents a sorry—and even violent—sight to behold. The camera’s canted angle; harsh, shadowy lighting; and the dissonant drones that bookend the scene insinuate that we’re about to watch a monster movie. For the moment though, we’re put in the presence of something simpler and more immediate: the face as weapon.

This gives us a taste of what we can expect throughout from Catherine, whose first line is, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.” She’s someone who prefers to be at the center of things, and such genteel abstractions as etiquette, diplomacy, or even dignity aren’t going keep her from getting there. Distraught by her break-up as well as a family tragedy, she retreats to the country escape of an ostensibly close friend, the lean, slinking Virginia (Katherine Waterston), who conceals her schadenfreude haphazardly at best, responding to her guest with a feline combination of playfulness and predation. As Catherine’s psychological state deteriorates, the two embark on a series of increasingly elaborate power plays. Indeed, it can be difficult to identify the intended ends of all this emotional coercion: what do these two women actually want from each other? Much to Catherine’s chagrin, the pair is eventually joined by Virginia’s aggressively casual hook-up buddy, Rich, a smirking fuckboy expertly played with smug malice by Patrick Fugit.

Four features into his career, Alex Ross Perry has carved out for himself a peculiar niche as contemporary indie cinema’s hottest purveyor of hyperliterate bile. Shot quickly and on a much smaller scale than last year’s Listen Up Philip, Queen of Earth has been widely billed as a change of direction for Perry, an unforeseeable curveball following the comedy stylings of The Color Wheel and Listen Up Philip; but make no mistake, it’s of a piece with the others. Included are the director’s penchants for out-of-town settings (relatively little of Philip, his “New York Film,” actually takes place in the city), notions of millennial entitlement, and acid-tongued discontents who, despite their jaundiced oversensitivity, manage to remain comfortably oblivious to their own venality. More concretely, it’s another break-up movie, a form well suited to Perry’s brand of intimate redress. Though the film’s tonal range might be shifted toward the ambiguous and threatening, Perry’s dark humor remains in effect, and his characters’ ominously suggestive utterances harbor comic irony no less than menace. At one point, Virginia splendidly declares, “I was victimized by his inability to face reality.”

That’s not to say that Queen of Earth doesn’t bring Perry’s motifs and concerns to new places. For starters, his characters’ bitter egotism is no longer presented as merely morally disagreeable, but tiresome as well. The bickering siblings and writers of his last two features may have been selfish and cruel, but their verbal wit, directness, and mental acuity made them attractive if not admirable. They were, at the very least, entertaining. Catherine and Virginia, conversely, communicate in the tortured language of passive aggression. Perry and his recurring collaborator, cinematographer Sean Price Williams, shoot them from spitting distance, letting no scowl, grimace, simper, or leer go unnoticed. In contrast to the freewheeling comic energy of Philip, Queen of Earth has a chilly observational patience, fixating on its dueling subjects as their environment is subsumed into swatches of brown, green, and mauve.

Moss often dominates these frames with her vitriolic distress, careening between intense internality and overt hostility, while the more graceful, reactive Waterston alternately provokes and responds to her outbursts. Perry has always worked well with actresses, and seems to have developed an especially strong rapport with Moss, Listen Up Philip’s not-so-secret weapon. Editor Robert Greene, another Philip alum, helps to keep the mercurial performances together. For all the movie’s verbal assaults, many of its most piercing moments come via unspoken tics, faces contorted from disgust, fixated with aggression, or simply turned away in dismissal or refusal.

Also gone are the narrative gambits of his previous works, which employed sudden emotional shifts and bait-and-switches to undercut viewer expectations. Queen of Earth makes no such gestures, but rather keeps us pent up with its protagonists until their cruelty gets under our skin. It’s a movie built on a foundation of repetition; we’re consistently treated to the same kinds of scenes with little indication of chronology but for some Shining-like intertitles that announce each new day in fussy pink calligraphy. Breaking points are continually approached but skirted as the warring parties retreat to renew their strength. As a result, even violent catharsis is denied in favor of prickly anxiety, aided by composer Keegan DeWitt’s circular, dissonant score. Interspersed with a few more ambiguously subjective episodes, the parade of cryptic slights and outbursts becomes emotionally enervating.

Yet while all this punishment might sound joyless, Perry is surprisingly willing to indulge his viewers—particularly those with cinephilic predilections. In interviews, he’s talked about his democratic working relationship with Williams, who often shoots down ideas he finds conventional or dull. This particular quest for unusual techniques, rooted more in the desire for engagement than novelty, reminds me of the bygone video store culture that Perry and Williams enthusiastically identify with, in which the undying desire to see something new could lead to the egalitarian appreciation of justly as well as unjustly neglected works of art—not only the overlooked masterpieces of world cinema but those trying, insurmountably dated, or downright disagreeable films that nonetheless offer something uniquely their own.

Accordingly, the impulse to put an eight-and-a-half-minute single take containing only two drifting monologues thirty minutes into one’s film is deliberately perverse, but also genuinely exciting. Williams’s camera hovers between the two actresses’ delicately lit faces as DeWitt’s score provides effective sonic counterpoint to their stories, tales of failed relationships recounted with a rambling glut of subjective detail reminiscent of the psychoanalytic couch. These epic close-ups, providing the climaxes of Impolex and The Color Wheel, have been the clearest expressions of Perry’s interest in both cinematic and spoken language. Lighting, camera, performance, and writing conspire to give a sense of emotional or psychological revelation, but these scenes also offer extended moments of unabashed cinematic pleasure from a director more readily associated with misanthropic provocation.

Queen of Earth brings this idea of misanthropy to a more toxic place than either of his prior two films, where it is made to skirt the line between attitude and pathology. The title points to the self-imposed royalism of the characters’ posture—at one point Virginia announces her ambitions to belong to “the modern aristocracy.” Likewise, Catherine’s psychological unraveling presents a latent threat—throughout the proceedings, Perry reminds us of the lake’s presence as both a serene counterpoint to the women’s explosiveness and, presumably, a place where someone could drown. Yet her disintegration is a social no less than psychological phenomenon. One gets the sense that she derives some degree of gratification from her perceived victimization, and the points where she most appears to have lost control—a withering vituperation of Rich and a bracingly helpless apology—are precisely where she most effectively pulls her targets into her orbit.

Still, throughout such relentlessly venomous interactions, it’s hard to imagine not only why Catherine and Virginia would remain in each other’s company but, more importantly, what they had to offer each other to begin with. As a result, the dissolution of their friendship passes as a matter of fact, secondary to the emotional and formal gamesmanship. As Virginia says midway through the film, “enemy is the only word,” a self-evident absurdity that nonetheless seems to be a guiding principle for what follows. As a result, the film functions mainly on the level of abstraction—less the story of a relationship than an idea of relationships. By the film’s conclusion, there remains little to do but recognize Catherine’s bleak little moment of triumph.