Kafka on the Shore: “Queen of Earth” Review

Alex Ross Perry’s past two films, Listen Up Phillip and The Color Wheel, are marked by a similar theme of an attempt to escape from society; this attempt stems from a clash of attitudes between the protagonists and the external forces surrounding them, i.e., friends, family, lovers, etc. Perry’s latest film, Queen of Earth, differs in that its main protagonists, Catherine Hewitt (Elisabeth Moss) and Ginny Lowell (Katherine Watson), are successful in their physical escape from society.

Queen of Earth takes place entirely at a lakeside cabin set away from proper society and so to this extent Perry utilizes the isolation brought about by the film’s story to shift the film into a realm of abstractness and surrealism, wherein the director/writer chooses to focus on the deeply internal and intimate struggles of his characters that could only be examined here, not only because of the freedom isolation grants but also because of the moments of self-reflexivity that isolation gives.

Following a breakup with her boyfriend, Catherine is convinced by Ginny to retreat to Ginny’s family lakeside home. The two best-friends spent their last vacation there and trip back in hopes of each reconciling their own emotional trouble.

The plot of Queen of Earth is difficult to describe, not because the movie relies on a plot-twist (it doesn’t) but because of the film’s abstract nature. The story is told primarily through a series of flashbacks that are seamlessly weaved into the present day time of the film. Action is sparse yet that’s not to say that nothing ever happens. The film plays out like a form of psychological therapy for its two leads and Perry is successful in not only initially characterizing both of them but also in giving the audience a cathartic feeling by the end.

With sparse dialogue, a few actors and only one location, Perry has challenged himself into using the most minimalist tools in order to create a film of much grander yet intimate scope. The similarities here immediately conjure images of Ingmar Bergman’s own Persona, another film where two women also retreat away from society for therapeutic needs but Queen of Earth avoids being just a copy of the former and instead stakes its own right and individuality as a work of art.

Where the opening scene of Persona and later on towards the middle, its scene of film-reel destruction, place Bergman’s work into the field of experimental and radical cinema, Perry’s Queen of Earth is much more subdued, never lending itself to such extreme moments not out of lack of skill on Perry’s part but perhaps interest. Once again, these are two different films and what really differentiates Queen of Earth from Persona is its roots within mumble-core—a genre that did not exist within Bergman’s own era but did see some of its biggest influences from that era, i.e., Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha’s obsession with the French New Wave.

Mumble-core is a genre still in its infancy primarily due to its interest in the examination of the idea of the millennial hipster and so it is literally, very modern and it is in this modernity that Queen of Earth becomes its own film, although still one that may be dissected and examined through the lens of Persona and further on, auteurs and their own (perceived) influences. Perry himself doesn’t seem to want to give into the idea of making his films too modern however. While both Listen Up Phillip and Queen of Earth utilize novels, a form of art which may give away a film’s time-period, Perry relegates the novel within his film to fictional works within his own universe; within Queen of Earth, Ginny can be seen reading Madness & Women, whose author, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), first makes an appearance in Listen Up Phillip. Other tells of more modern times, such as the cell-phone or the internet never make an appearance and so Perry’s films begin to become almost ahistorical in their settings (Here, audiences may begin to note the distant relationship between Perry and Wes Anderson, a director who not only attempts to ahistoricize his films but also closely worked with Noah Baumbach, a pioneer in the mumble-core genre), only being betrayed by cars and wireless house phones.

Once again, rather than being focused on conventional action, Perry moves the plot in Queen of Earth through small, intimate moments that reveal the internal psyches of the character’s on-screen, characters, who, exemplify the tropes found within mumble-core.

Analyzing the film retrospectively, then, it’s a great joy to see how Perry begins his psychological examination of Catherine and Ginny. Queen of Earth’s first shot is a close-zoom-in of Catherine’s face caked with smudged make-up and tears. Catherine’s boyfriend is breaking up with her but despite the exchanges in dialogue, Perry never tears away from Catherine’s face. Catherine’s distorted appearance showcases her extreme vulnerability, which in turn assist Perry in developing the relationship between spectator and film. Perry’s use of long-take within this scene magnifies Catherine’s own anxiety and confusion stemming from her break-up and the long-take forces the audience to contemplate Catherine’s suffering while simultaneously experiencing it for themselves. It is through his camera techniques that Perry creates the sense of intimacy between the audience and the characters onscreen that permeate the film and allow for an understanding and closeness between the two.

While Queen of Earth is indeed abstract, Perry is only able to get to that atmosphere through the physicality of the camera. In order to develop and expand on the internal intricacies of his characters and the way in which the audience views them, Perry heavily employs the use of slow zoom-in shots and only stops once the character’s face has been closely focused in on. Whereas a conventional dialogue scene will have shot/reverse-shots of characters speaking with no change in angles, Perry subverts the shot/reverse-shot with the aforementioned use of close zoom-ins.

Shot/reverse-shots in Queen of Earth are used as more than just a manner in identifying the speaker to the audience, helping to once again create a relationship that breaks the 4th wall because Perry gives a somewhat ultimate form of the shot/reverse-shot. A mid-shot will place the speaker on a level of understanding but Perry’s close zoom-in forces the audience to do more than just understand who is speaking but to truly focus in on the character and in combination with the film’s dialogue, those who take pleasure in analysis will find themselves in a state of meditation throughout the film, thus, creating an internal dialogue between what and how audiences are thinking of the characters and the characters’ own flaws.

Alex Ross Perry’s Queen of Earth is a film which digs into itself while inviting the audience to partake within a psychoanalytic experience. It’s a unique type of thriller film where the audience is allowed to be complicit with the characters’ actions but may find themselves dangerously distanced or alienated, although this forceful partaking from the film to the audience makes for some of the best  film-going experiences.

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