Berlin 2015: ‘Queen of Earth’ review


A chamber piece constructed in pallid pastel shades, Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth (2015) marks a tonal if not thematic departure from the precocious misanthropy of last year’s well-received Listen Up Philip (2014). A feminist exploration of jealously contained within the lurid overtones of a domestic horror, the passive aggression gradually gives way to unbridled resentment in this disconcertingly unnerving psychodrama. Perry once again teams up with Elisabeth Moss, who puts in a remarkable performance as Catherine, Queen of Earth’s tortured lead. The film opens on a close-up of her smeared mascara and tear blemished face as she sobs emphatically towards the camera.

We discover that Catherine is breaking up with her boyfriend and has just recently lost her father; a famous artist for whom she worked as an assistant. The break-up leads Catherine to her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston), whose cabin in the woods appears to be the perfect haven in which to compose her thoughts and plan what to do next. Predictably, Virginia’s isolated cabin isn’t the refuge it pertains to be and the influence of men continues to seep through the peripheries; be it via flashbacks from her trip here last summer with her boyfriend; the lingering memory of her father or Charlie (Patrick Fugit) or the boy next door, who in one startling scene finds himself on the receiving end of a venomous sermon about why he’s the personification of everything wrong with the world from a spitting Catherine.

Perry employs the same tones redolent of Swedish erotica to add a hazy sense of disorientation to proceedings, allowing his camera to glide gracefully between Catherine and Virginia’s increasingly strained communications, narrowly sidestepping the camouflaged bile and resentment that hangs on every italicised question mark. We’re left pondering the value of this friendship, with this co-dependant relationship clear unable to facilitate the happiness of both parities at the same time. Filmed in forgiving 16mm stock by Sean Price Williams and punctuated by calligraphy title cards the film’s soft, supple veneer is veiled in Keegan DeWitt’s omnipotent score that prowls menacingly on the fringes of the film like a linger premonition of impending doom. As the mood escalates to an unbearable degree of tension, this prison of dependency and repressed emotions becomes entwined by the shackles of nepotism and entitlement.

Horror, more specifically psychological horror, has a long and problematic history when it comes to exploiting female insecurities. Queen of Earth’s duo have as much in common with A Woman Under the Influences’ Mabel as they do the titular mother in Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, yet whilst the notes of desperation are emphatic and resonate clear, the film never succumbs to melodrama, and both women are disconcerting comfort within their own skin. The performances of both Moss and Waterston are tremendous, filling the empty spaces of the frame with a suffocating mist of pain and suffering. There’s plenty to admire in Queen of Earth, most notably Perry’s ability to seamlessly shift between genres, yet it should be noted that the film’s reliance on ambiguity will irritate viewers desperate for answers. However, if you favour feel and atmosphere over shocks and resolutions then you might find yourself a willing participant in the spiralling psychosis.

The 65th Berlin Film Festival takes place from 5-15 February 2015. For more of our coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble | @PatrickJGamble