Queen Of Earth
"A psychologically astute and darkly funny look at the deep bonds of female friendship and the damage that can be wrought by those closest to you." | Photo: Sean Price Williams

Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) is going through a difficult time. Her idolised artist-father has recently committed suicide and the boyfriend (Kentucker Audley) with whom she had formed a co-dependent unit has been unfaithful, leading to the tearstained break-up with which the film opens. To convalesce, she heads to a place of happier memories and seeks refuge at a lakeside cabin owned by the family of her friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston), where she spent time the previous summer - but as Catherine struggles to retain her sanity, the interwoven flashbacks to that summer begin to take on a darker resonance.

The contrast between Catherine's previously 'perfect' life and her currently fractured mental state causes her long-time friend to re-evaluate her - although Virginia is genuinely concerned for Catherine's welfare, she is also fascinated by her friend's delusional interpretations of past events, and determinedly probes the tender places in Catherine's psyche. Both women are left open to accusations of privileged and cosseted existences, but although Virginia possesses a measure of self-awareness about how she chooses to live her life, Catherine seems to have been unaware of how protected and sheltered her existence has been - until those protections (the men) are suddenly removed and she is left defenceless and unable to cope.

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The two women have an antagonistic relationship - even in the supposedly happier flashbacks they needle one another - and if not exactly competitive, they are nonetheless extremely combative. While the actresses' physical differences reflect their characters' respective personalities - with Waterston's languid ranginess matching Virginia's laidback attitude, while Catherine's seething rage manifests as a sense of restrained compact force in Moss's petite frame - director Alex Ross Perry often focusses on their faces, keeping them in tight close-ups to capture unspoken thoughts as the two characters display their neuroses and are put through the emotional wringer. Both actresses rise to the challenge of withstanding the camera's intense scrutiny, and each delivers a psychologically-nuanced performance that seems rooted in emotional veracity.

Although not exactly a melodrama - the film is more a psychodrama par excellence - Queen Of Earth does nonetheless seem to skirt the edge of certain manifestations of that genre with its privileging of a female perspective, the social milieu to which the two women belong, and certain stylistic quirks such as the classy calligraphy of its titles (recalling classical-era Hollywood). The latter announce the days of the week during the week-long stay at the cabin, a framing device that gradually ratchets up the tension - as the week progresses, the sense that Catherine may snap and/or a murder will take place in the overwrought confines of the cabin steadily increases - and works in tandem with Keegan DeWitt's horror-influenced score to elegantly convey trepidation.

As the film develops, Catherine turns her fears into projections onto Virginia (seeing things through the prism of her own past behaviour as a friend) or outward attacks - "I could murder you right now and no one would know," she sweetly says to a random stranger who she allows into the cabin in the dead of night for a glass of water (or does she?) - that become increasingly venomous (such as her virtually spitted indictment of Virginia's neighbour, Rich (Patrick Fugit)).

If our perception of the present is shaped by our understanding and memory of the past, the sophisticated and subtle use of flashbacks within the film points to both the quicksand nature of our relation with the past (as doubts creep in, different interpretations arise - something Virginia is equally susceptible to) and, by extension, the fragility of our own identities. The way in which we are made privy to the perceptions of both women highlights how easy it is to become untethered from an agreed reality.

A psychologically astute and darkly funny look at the deep bonds of female friendship and the damage that can be wrought by those closest to you, Queen Of Earth gives Catherine's downward spiral into increasingly histrionic outbursts the quality of purging - as if expelling a poison from deep within herself - and one gets the sense that this process will either make her and Virginia stronger or irrevocably destroy their friendship (or perhaps both those things simultaneously). It is relatively rare to see a film with two female leads who are allowed to dominate proceedings - Moss and Waterston clearly relish the opportunity, and each gives what is arguably her best performance to date.

Reviewed on: 05 May 2015
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Following her father's suicide and breaking up with her boyfriend, Catherine seeks refuge with her friend Virginia, but the young woman's shaky grasp on reality strains their relationship to breaking point.
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Jennie Kermode ****1/2

Director: Alex Ross Perry

Writer: Alex Ross Perry

Starring: Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kate Lyn Sheil, Kentucker Audley, Keith Poulson

Year: 2015

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US

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