Queen of Earth
Alex Ross Perry's Queen of Earth opens with a raccoon-eyed Elisabeth Moss, tears streaming down her face. Her cheating boyfriend is breaking up with her and she passively snarls at him that he's a "sneak." From the get-go, no trace of Peggy Olson remains in Moss.
Moss plays Catherine, a woman well past the verge, who spends a "relaxing" week with her best friend, Virginia (Katherine Waterston) at a lake house to try to purge the recent loss of her father and boyfriend. The two, who as Moss said in a post-film Q&A were probably friends since childhood, appear to not like each other very much. Their relationship bounces back and forth between utter poison—spitting loaded barbs about any number of things (work, relationships, personality traits) that they know will set the other off immediately—to comfortable compassion—Virginia making sure Catherine eats or, in the film's best scene, the two sharing a languid conversation about failed relationships and getting stuck in one's own self-destructive cycle.
Queen of Earth traces Catherine's rotting mental state through a series of flashbacks of her and Virginia's last summer at home, one in which Catherine, newly engaged, was the happy, stable one to Virginia's unknown trauma, masked by dark glasses and a continued fling with toxic bro Rich (Patrick Fugit). Her descent into madness feels gradual—at one moment she's calmly painting Virginia's portrait, the next she's frothing at the mouth with venom or glassily looking out at the lake. Moss's performance goes from 0 to 100 on the crazy scale and back again at an impressive rate.
Women going mad has long been a tried and true film trope and Queen fits neatly into the genre alongside claustrophobic classics like Roman Polanski's Repulsion. But Perry is sly about his depiction of Catherine's madness (a scene where Virginia is reading Women and Madness is particularly pointed) because it leans so heavily into her previous anxieties through the use of flashback—Catherine's insecurity about her relationship with Virginia, her independence away from her father and fiancé, even her worry about what mere strangers, like short shorts-clad Rich, think about her. Moss's earnest performance and Perry's direction—through the fuzzy lens of a 16mm camera—add a layer of warmth to Catherine's insanity, which is weirdly reminiscent of Girl, Interrupted, the 1999 film based off Susanna Kaysen's memoir about her 1960s stay in a mental hospital.
That warmth is incredibly deceptive.
In Repulsion, Catherine Denueve is icy madness, playing Carole, a beautiful, young woman who loses it when her sister goes out of town for the weekend. She's all sharp angles, increasing hallucinations and utterly alone. Her madness is sparked out of her sexual frigidity, which, not to knock Repulsion, feels absurd. Carole's fear of men and sex pushes her over the edge.
And perhaps with the insight of Repulsion and other films in the "women & madness" genre, this warmth, Moss's rosy cheeks, dolloped in sunlight with Virginia by her side, seems purposeful on Perry's part. Queen feels rooted in actual mental illness, not just out-of-nowhere hysteria. Allusions to Catherine's father's depression are made and the circumstances of her life are clear—even in flashbacks there's a glint of manic energy that underlies her cardigan-wearing togetherness. And that's how Girl, Interrupted feels too. Susanna Kaysen, as portrayed by Winona Ryder, is someone who broke simply because of life. Her stay at the mental institution, not unlike Catherine's at the lake house, as a means to recoup not to slip further out of herself.
Catherine's stay, despite the roomy, airy home and open nature, sends her into further spiral. Her mental state ping pongs back and forth, as do the flashbacks of her previous summer with bits and pieces of seeing Catherine, hair mussed and covered in leaves, surrounded by chip bags that don't even make sense in her current timeline. Queen's messy timeline anchored by Moss's completely unnerving breakdown make it hard to not feel like it's taking its own mental toll on the audience.
What makes Queen of Earth so frightening is how deeply you can see yourself in it.