So I just googled “Queen of Earth chronological order” on a faint suspicion, and sure enough I found something that confirmed one of my initial reactions to the film:
“The shoot itself makes for an interesting story. Based on advice from friend and producer Joe Swanberg (Moss shares the credit), Perry went small: a single location, chronological order, a quick shoot (14 days), and cast and crew staying together on set.”
I suspected that might be the case while watching the film, simply because the editing and camera angles in the earlier scenes felt a little off to me. It smacked of someone making do with overly minimal coverage, then improving that technical side of things as the shoot wore on.
Which is sort of Alex Ross Perry’s new film, Queen of Earth, in a nutshell. Nothing egregiously off about it, just maybe a few niggling flaws holding back the psychological thriller from really achieving its potential heights. It’s a chamber film inspired by the works of Roman Polanski, with a healthy dose of Persona thrown in for good measure. Chamber film is an admittedly archaic and rarely used term that basically serves as a classy filmic equivalent to “bottle episode.” A chamber film tends to have one chief location, and very few characters. Instead it focuses on the tensions between a minimal number of chief characters confined to a small location. It’s a claustrophobic style entirely driven by deft touches – a look here, an odd pause here, a dropped glass, these sorts of subtleties are used to generate tension in your average chamber film. The thing about a movie being driven by such fine details is it doesn’t take much to hold it back. It practically demands a perfectionist handling of the minutiae, and so consequently little mistakes can really add up.
Now maybe I’ve been watching too much David Lynch lately, but I’m inclined to think Queen of Earth’s flawed (more on that later) ending invites the film to be reexamined after viewing. I never really expected there to be any sort of tomfoolery on display in the film, so I didn’t pay nearly close enough attention to recurring shots and hints that, in retrospect, were probably signposts pointing out reality from imagination. However, to take a first cursory glance at the film’s suggestions, I’d be inclined to say that Virginia (Catherine Watson) is imagining Catherine (Elizabeth Moss) for most of the film. If I had to guess using a few of the clues I would say the real events go something like this:
The year before, Catherine and her boyfriend went to visit Virginia at her cottage, intending to console Virginia, probably over the vague controversy surrounding her wealthy parent’s illegal and awful actions.
Over the next summer, Catherine, who was in a horribly codependent relationship with her boyfriend, split up with him and killed herself.
Then Virginia went to the cottage alone and spent a bunch of time with her guilt-induced fantasy version of Catherine.
Now I’d be the first to admit this reading has some problems. I’d have to watch the film again before I’d be really comfortable defending this stance, however there are a few clues that I think suggest that scenes shown from Catherine’s point-of-view are actually the imaginings of Virginia. One such scene comes during Catherine’s biggest meltdown. There’s a gathering at Virginia’s cabin, and all the people there look like leering monsters and ask Catherine upsetting questions. There’s conversation in the background about the charges laid against Virginia’s parents (in the potentially fictionalized version of events the film presents, Catherine is distressed because of her father’s recent suicide) however the party-goers ask Catherine questions that, while vague, seem to imply they at least believe they’re talking to Virginia. Comments about seeing Catherine on TV and mentions of embezzlement.
There are also a few comments and moments that make me think Virginia is recontextualizing events related to Catherine’s suicide. I think a lot of the comments made about Catherine’s father’s suicide are actually details Virginia has ported over in her mind. For instance Catherine mentions working on a final portrait with her father, and describes it as morbid. Meanwhile there’s a recurring scene where Virginia poses for a portrait with Catherine. Catherine’s portrait of Virginia is actually one of the last things we see in the movie, appearing while Virginia wanders through her cottage, now suddenly lacking all evidence of Catherine’s supposedly real recent actions.
Now this doesn’t necessarily explain everything. Perhaps it makes more sense if this is a distorted memory of a pre-suicide cottage trip with Catherine. Maybe I really am slowly sinking into a nonsensical interpretation of a fairly literal film. That ending is so blatantly inviting this sort of attempt however.
Which isn’t to say it’s a good ending, because it’s not, to be frank. The movie is actually tense and upsetting for most of the runtime, however the ending comes out of nowhere. The problem is there’s absolutely no climax, no conclusion, no ending. The movie just sort of cuts away from one of Catherine’s more dramatic meltdowns to an uneventful scene where Virginia walks through the mysteriously clean cabin, looks at the painting, then CUT we see Catherine’s face filling the screen laughing. Credits. Sure it’s vague, and invites analysis, but it’s still an anticlimactic ending. Sure if Catherine’s existence is entirely imagined or remembered the film doesn’t technically have anything to resolve, but that’s a horrendous narrative cop-out. At the very least the mental state of Virginia is the real narrative that needs resolution. Or Catherine’s real, in which case the ending is a pretentious, jarring, unthinking period stuck before the end of the sentence.
The thing that’s great about the bastions of interpretive cinema, movies like The Shining, Mulholland Drive, or many other Lynch films, is that they still have narratives that build towards a conclusion. Take Mulholland Drive, which has two jarring unreal narratives in one movie. Before even attempting to interpret it the visceral effect is still engrossing. Both narrative chunks feel like they build to a conclusion. Doubly effective is that both conclusions are linked to the subtext of the film. The first climax is the Silencio scene, which, when analyzed, clearly becomes the moment the protagonist awakes from the preceding two-hours of dream state. That’s an important moment on every level. The second, more symbolic, “real” ending comes when the main character kills herself. Two narratives, one a dreamed reimagining of the other, both have satisfying conclusions, even if they are vague and filled with implications.
Whereas Queen of the Earth just sort of ends. It’s like the filmmaking process started with a stumble, got really good, then everyone involved got bored and just decided to go home. Which is a shame, because so much of what comes before the end is actually excellent. The film is tense and memorable and gets under your skin. It had a few really great scenes, like the party scene. It feels like the central mystery is well signposted, even if I might be interpreting these signposts incorrectly.
The camerawork is pretty good, very old-fashioned; there’s never a medium shot when there could be a close-up, never two characters in a frame when there could be edited close-shots. But it’s as communicative as you’d want from this sort of film, and as emotive as you’d want. The two leads are excellent, completely selling the film’s central psychological drama. The mannerisms and tones of voice Elisabeth Moss adopts as Catherine are frankly show-stealing. The two leads alone help make the movie worth your while, and their performances with some legitimately good filmmaking come together to make excellent moments.
It’s a testament to the film that, despite some problems that clearly weighed on me, I wanted to attempt to pick it apart and analyze it. It demonstrates a compelling nature and a central metaphor that, at least at an initial glance, holds together. If it hadn’t then the out of the blue ending might have entirely turned me off analyzing it. In a lesser film that sort of ending might have completely rubbed me the wrong way, implying there’s some secret at the heart of the film that undoubtedly wouldn’t have been properly textually implied. Sure Queen of Earth could’ve done with a few more textual clues and suggestions up front, just to prepare the viewer for the act of interpretation.
Overall Queen of Earth is a decidedly excellent movie riddled with small flaws. It’s hardly enough to sink the movie, and hardly enough to make me question my recommendation, but it is enough to weigh on the overall quality. It’s a movie that has a very small, narrow, specific focus. The film attempts such a small, specific, intricate thing, so the tiny flaws add up. If you were to think of it like a tiny clockwork toy then the film is beautiful but the gears don’t all quite work.