Something Different: Queen of Earth

opens a new Film & TV section with a look at this mesmerising drama of mental illness and friendship

Here at Nouse, we like to challenge readers to embrace variety, take in new things and try “Something Different”. Modern multiplexes are flooded with superheroes, shared universes and the occasional Star War. They are all vastly entertaining and a big part of modern cinema, but there is also so much more. Film is a medium of near-endless possibilities. Images and ideas come from all directions, fizzing with the creativity, wit and intelligence of their makers. This regular section of Nouse allows our writers to review films that most of us may have missed and treat our readers to a new cinematic gem.

Image: IFC Films

8/10

Director: Alex Ross Perry

Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston

Length: 1hr 30m

Rating: 15

Released: July 2016

A little over a year ago, American indie auteur Alex Ross Perry’s fourth film hit cinemas. Little seen and favoured but not raved about by the critics, Queen of Earth seems like the kind of film that might get lost in cinematic history, caught uncomfortably between critical classic and cult favourite. That would be an awful shame though, because Perry’s film is an intense, uncomfortable and ultimately mesmerising look at relationships and mental breakdown, centred around astonishing work from Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston. They play Catherine and Virginia, two friends on a summer retreat to the latter’s lakeside house courtesy of her parents. As the film wears on, Catherine’s depression and anxiety, sparked by a split from her boyfriend and the suicide of her lauded artist father, begin to tighten their grip as the friends show increasing resentment and cruelty to each other, fuelled by the presence of boy-next-door Rich (Patrick Fugit), who’s relationship with Virginia is only one of a number of tensions between him and Catherine.

Image: IFC Films

At first, Perry’s style (close-up after close-up, tinkling pianos) may be somewhat jarring and irritating, but soon these elements become essential to the unsettling nature of the piece. The close-ups mean that the two friends are seen in shot together less often, indicating the divisions between them; the decision to focus these shots on the listener rather than the speaker in certain conversations is strikingly effective in highlighting how self-centred both people can be in the friendship; one scene in which they take turns to moan about past boyfriends, whilst the audience sees the other friend’s disinterest, even contempt, is a particularly good example. Keegan DeWitt’s score also becomes an integral part of the film as it combines with a suitably eerie lake to add a sense of mystery and danger on top of the breakdowns and insults.

First and foremost, Queen of Earth is worthy of your time because it is a serious and well-handled film about mental illness. It also exists as an affecting look at a failing relationship. These are two big, powerful topics that are close to home for so many among us. The opening section, whilst successfully showing the lethargic, uncommunicative stage of Catherine’s illness, is somewhat tedious, with very little narrative development and Perry perhaps taking too long to establish the mood. Queen of Earth is at its best when the characters are talking. This is when the psychological cracks in both characters really show. The sharp dialogue highlights a constant jealousy and resentment but the performances show enough warmth between the pair to stop you questioning why these people even spend time with each other.

Perry intercuts the unfolding drama of the week with flashbacks to the same trip a year earlier, only this time with Catherine’s boyfriend James in tow. Then it was Virginia who showed the signs of anxiety and growing frustration. These feelings of irritation are instilled in the audience partly because of the excellent use of sound – never before has a movie crisp packet set its audience so on edge. The second year’s trip shows Catherine experiencing similar problems but far further along this rather dark path. The film is exceptional in showing so many different elements of Catherine’s struggle, whether it be her many father-related issues or her nagging doubt that when Rich says she’s a spoilt brat who craves attention, he might just be right.

First and foremost, Queen of Earth is worthy of your time because it is a serious and well-handled film about mental illness.

All of this is shown magnificently by Elisabeth Moss, who deserves all the plaudits she gets for such a superb performance. The last half an hour of the film is where she and the film become most compelling, with one electrifying scene standing out as the most viciously insulting verbal attack this side of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. In an original, interesting and at times thrilling way, Queen of Earth is a portrait of a woman whose slide from happiness and security to torment and pain is down to the loss of people to trust and feel close to. Catherine keeps saying that she wants to be left alone but really she needs to be with the people close to her, the people that, with her boyfriend gone, her father dead and her best friend slipping away, seem to be few and far between.

Queen of Earth is difficult, fascinating and ultimately electrifying. Please give it your time.

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