Last year was director Alex Ross Perry’s breakout. His third film, Listen Up Philip, a dramedy centering around two narcissistic authors, one young and rising, the other an aging literary lion, brought the director something close to mainstream recognition (while a cover story in Film Comment might not be a barometer of mainstream, certainly Disney tapping him to direct the upcoming live-action adaptation of Winnie the Pooh is). Listen Up Philip is a very good film, exploring the personality traits required (or are they?) to be a great writer, and investigating with some finesse how maleness and the egoism necessary to turn life into “art” are mutually reinforcing in our culture. While that film, as far as most of the press it received was concerned, hinged on two Philip Roth-like characters and their back and forth, the middle chunk was given over to Philip’s girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) and provided the alternative reality against which Philip and his mentor’s self-aggrandizement could be measured. In that section, Perry showed himself to be a keen observer of women, and perhaps more sympathetic to Ashley’s worldview than to those of his protagonists, all too easily read as stand-ins for himself. Now, only a year later, Perry has returned with Queen of Earth, again featuring Elizabeth Moss. A portrait of two female friends, meticulously investigating the ebb and flow of their relationship, and the difficulties inherent in being close enough to someone that you feel responsible for their well-being, despite being two separate, unrelated “adults,” Queen of Earth has received little of the attention that Listen Up Philip did. I will not play Kreskin much in this regard, but it does not take a soothsayer to imagine that the gender of the protagonists has something to do with it. Yes, it could simply be the fact that the film followed too closely on the heels of last year’s publicity, but looking at the critical response, and to a degree the marketing of the film, we can discern that nobody is quite sure what to make of it. The poster advertises it as an “acidly funny comedy,” which it assuredly is not (and which Listen Up Philip definitely was). Rogerebert.com calls it “as unsettling as any horror film,” and other sources pigeonhole it as a psychological thriller; while I understand this sentiment to a degree, as the main character is in crisis throughout much of the film, and we as viewers become worried that the shoe will drop, the implicit violence mustering behind Moss’s visage becoming explicit, there are ultimately no “thrills” to be had, and no horrors to behold. Anthony Lane, writing in The New Yorker, comes closest to the truth when he compares the film to Bergman – one cannot help but think (and Perry is indeed prompting us to) of Persona, with two female protagonists going tête-a-tête in a dialectical discovery of identity while on a “vacation” that doubles as a period of convalescence. Persona, however, is more psychoanalytic, with the women losing a sense of who they were, and discovering new identities through their isolation – it views their feminine aspects as two sides of the same coin. Queen of Earth is more down to earth (surprise, surprise), more “realistic,” interested ultimately in the problems of friendship and the limits of knowing, and helping, another person. The protagonists are women, perhaps, not so much because the film is interested in the nature of women, but because women tend to care about, and interrogate more deeply, the nature of friendship, and the responsibilities and rewards contained within that relationship.
Elizabeth Moss plays Catherine, an artist who has long lived in the shadow of her much more famous artist father, whose affairs she manages. Katherine Waterston plays Virginia, a longtime friend who is seemingly content to do little with her life (in a conventional sense); she seems to rely on her parents, and their wealth, for her existence, although the details of the arrangement are never made crystal clear. As the film begins, Catherine is breaking up with her longstanding boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley), and breaking down emotionally. Virginia offers Catherine safe haven at her house upstate (actually her parents’ summer home), with the implicit promise of time alone to recuperate and work on her art in solitude. We sense tension between the friends from the moment of Catherine’s arrival, and soon it has made its way to the surface, with the pair snipping at each other as much or more than they sympathize. At first we don’t understand this dynamic, and assume that Virginia is being a bit remote and cold; after all, she invited Catherine up, knowing she was in crisis. Further, Virginia inserts a man into the situation, neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugit), a nice-enough seeming fellow who ultimately reveals himself to be an unsettling presence, a smarmy enigma who, as Catherine later critiques, stands emotionally apart from people and pokes at them with verbal sticks. As the film progresses, however, the past begins to emerge into the present, and via flashbacks (which tend to arrive unannounced) we soon learn that a year ago the situation was reversed – it was Virginia who was in crisis, and it was Catherine who arrived, supposedly to give succor to her friend, with her then-new boyfriend James in tow. The movie then moves back and forth between these two periods (although giving more weight, and play, to the present). Catherine in the present moves further and further down the spiral, into a place that on the surface looks like “madness,” but which, in terms of her thinking revealed via monologue, seems quite in touch with the raw existential truths of reality; a year earlier, we see her smiling, preening a bit, contented and self-satisfied, happy, but only by way of forcing a comparison against Virginia, who we sense she has always resented for the ease with which she approaches life. So while we are happy to see that Catherine was not always so miserable, we also sense that her miserable state is more honest; and while Virginia at first seemed unsympathetic, we begin to see that her role in the friendship has been the harder one, perhaps, with her stoicism being mistaken for aloofness, her own crises, and problems, always given short shrift. The men in the story complicate the relationships, but they are also strictly secondary in importance – they exist to be used by the women against each other, and to flesh out aspects of the relationship that would remain unseen otherwise. The film moves to a kind of climax, with Catherine making a scene at a party Virginia hosts, and then telling off Rich even as she tries to understand him. Eventually she leaves, after having sunk further and further into isolation – she becomes not mad exactly, but beyond caring about trying to hide her inner turmoil, and her departure signals not recovery, but her desire to spare Virginia further stress (driven perhaps by guilt at recognizing her own failings as a support a year earlier). In the end, the friendship persists – we understand this through a closing gesture – but each character must bear the heaviness of their faults, and of life’s unfolding, alone.
What is remarkable about the film is how astute it is in tracing the complexities of a relationship that is chosen and not forced upon either party; it truly investigates what it means to be friends with someone, and all the pain that such a relationship brings. In Virginia and Catherine’s flip-flopping positions, with one in crisis in the past, the other in the present, we begin to see how each brings something to the relationship that attracts the other: Catherine her emotional openness, and her ability to verbally unpack the realities surrounding her (regardless of if they are “true”); Virginia her acceptance and unrelenting graciousness, a kind of maternalism, even when it is barbed and grudging. Catherine likes the ease with which Virginia takes life as it comes, not understanding that it really is not so easy for her, while Virginia admires Catherine’s talent and drive, even if it is halting or expressed in a passive aggressive way. While all of this is well and good, and displays a very admirable, and assured, grip on interpersonal psychology by Perry, what carries the film upward is the way all of this is blended into a portrayal of life as an unfolding that we have little control over; the friendship is a barometer that measures the revelation of a mystery. In the movement of Catherine from a place of happiness and assuredness to one of despair and doubt, we feel how life reveals itself as a continual series of revelations that are, for individuals and those who care about them, self-revelations as well. This is part of the motivating force behind Catherine’s monologues – she is trying to understand the nature of existence by parsing herself, and those around her, in real-time. Thus we also come to understand that Virginia is not pleased in any way by Catherine’s downfall, for it reveals to her the contingency of things, and also prompts her to consider that perhaps the seeds of the downfall were always present, and that this friend she thought she knew well is different, and always has been; further, such knowledge leaves Virginia fully alone, as she realizes she is the “strong one,” and thus will always be isolated. Indeed, the whole film is a reflection on the open question of how far we can go toward knowing others, and given that we are all, in a way, isolated inside our experience of time passing, it asks what responsibilities are inherent to friendship, and questions what we hope to get out of knowing others. Why do we do it? Why do we seek to become close to people we are not obliged to know, when it entails so much unhappiness, pain, and failure? The movie only raises these questions, it does not attempt to answer them, except insofar as to suggest, by way of Catherine’s art, that seeking truth, about our own natures as well as that of the universe, is the ultimate reason. I am happy to say that I have barely scratched the surface of the insights and pleasures that Queen of Earth provides. As usual, the cinematography is outstanding, and signifies “period” in ways that Listen Up Philip‘s also did, but much more subtly, making us feel less like we are in the realm of pastiche. This is by far Alex Ross Perry’s finest film, and one of the finest recent films about women, the nature of friendship, and what growing older feels like from the inside. The cliche says growing older is growing wiser, and there’s truth there – but such wisdom takes the form of a greater knowledge of our own failings, and humility in facing our inability to break away from our pretensions. Catherine’s laughter, which ends the film, is not the bleak laughter of the void; rather, it is laughter of the reflections in a funhouse mirror, a recognition that the way we prefer to see ourselves is distorted and (except perhaps in periods of distress) almost always backwards.