'Queen of Earth': Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Elisabeth Moss electrifies in this intriguing but frustrating cinematic muddle

Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss stars in this chamber drama from acclaimed filmmaker Alex Ross Perry

Alex Ross Perry is a filmmaker who’s not ashamed to flaunt his literary and cinematic influences.  His last film, Listen Up Philip, was indebted to the fiction as well as the persona of Philip Roth.  His newest movie, Queen of Earth, having its world premiere in the Forum section in Berlin, recalls several movies about the intense, tormented relationship of two women friends.  Probably Perry needs to shed some of these influences to become a truly first-rate filmmaker.  Philip got excellent reviews but made no headway at the box office.  Queen seems destined for the same commercial oblivion, but it is in some ways more intriguing than the overrated Philip.

For one thing, this new movie offers a bigger and juicier role for Elisabeth Moss, the Mad Men star who had a supporting role in Philip.  This film opens on a closeup of Moss as she is being dumped by her unfaithful boyfriend (Kentucker Audley).  Her angry, agonized reaction seizes our attention.  Throughout the film Moss traverses an astonishing range of emotions, from bliss to complete mental disintegration.  She is fascinating to watch even when the film turns into a frustrating head-scratcher.

After that opening scene, Moss’s Catherine retreats to a bucolic lakeside house to recuperate with best friend Ginny (Katherine Waterston).  The two women have a long-standing friendship that has obviously not been without conflict and jealousy.  As they alternately comfort and criticize each other, the film keeps jumping back from the present summer to a vacation they spent a year ago when Catherine brought her ex-lover to the house and Ginny was beginning a flirtation with a neighbor (Patrick Fugit).  The flashback scenes are there mainly to serve as counterpoint and also to suggest that there were always glimmers of tension between the two best friends.  The present-day scenes lay bare their rapidly fracturing friendship, with Catherine teetering on the brink of madness.

The scenes of conflict between two women in a confined setting recall several other movies, including Robert Altman’s 3 Women, Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female (a more melodramatic variant on the same theme), and even Ingmar Bergman’s classic Persona.  Perry is not yet at the level of Bergman or Altman (to put it mildly), but he does work well with the actresses, as those other directors did.  Waterston, who recently had a vivid role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, gives a compelling and convincing performance.  But it’s Moss (also one of the film’s producers) who confirms that she is developing into one of our boldest young actresses. 

The script doesn’t always provide a deep enough understanding of Catherine.  There are hints that she had a traumatic relationship with her father, a prominent artist who may have been involved in some financial misdeeds that led to his death.  But Perry isn’t yet a gifted enough writer to fill in the complexities of this relationship through oblique verbal exposition.   He does deserve credit for making the most of a minuscule budget, with an effective visual evocation of the isolated setting and a haunting score by Keegan De Witt

As the film grows increasingly murky, it stirs memories of another recent Elisabeth Moss movie, The One I Love, another cinematic puzzle about a relationship deteriorating during a rustic getaway.  It might be nice to see Moss in a movie with a bigger canvas.  The actress shows great promise, but she needs to break out of these claustrophobic conundrums to reach the audience she deserves.

Cast:  Elisabeth Moss, Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley, Keith Poulson, Craig Butta.

Director-screenwriter:  Alex Ross Perry.

Producers:  Elisabeth Moss, Alex Ross Perry, Joe Swanberg, Adam Pitrowicz.

Executive producers:  Peter Gilbert, Edwin Linker, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos.

Director of photography:  Sean Price Williams.

Production designer:  Anna Bak-Kvapil.

Costume designer:  Amanda Ford.

Editor:  Robert Greene.

Music:  Keegan De Witt.

No rating, 90 minutes.

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