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MIFF 2015: Queen of Earth

Alex Ross Perry returns to MIFF, just a year after 2014 festival standout Listen Up Philip, with the psychological thriller Queen of Earth. Flirting with a breakdown in the wake of her father’s death and the end of a relationship, Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) retreats to the summer home of her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) to recover in self-imposed exile. The distance between the two friends, as well as the presence of Virginia’s neighbour and sometime lover Rich (Patrick Fugit), causes tension as Catherine’s mental state continues to deteriorate.

Perry’s close-knit production crew —cinematographer Sean Price Williams, editor Robert Greene and composer Keegan DeWitt — began production on Queen of Earth just 11 months after wrapping on Listen Up Philip. The immediacy of the production, coupled with the tonal left-turn into thriller territory after the comedy of Philip, lends Queen of Earth an air of excitement. Williams’ fourth film with Perry and one of three films at MIFF in 2015 (with Heaven Knows What and Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead) may be his best work yet; the same can be said for Greene (also at the festival with his own Actress), who steals the show at times with a couple of dissolves and jump cuts.

Queen of Earth builds around its female lead; having also co-starred in Listen Up Philip, Moss enters Queen of Earth as much a collaborator as Price, Greene, or DeWitt. Her Catherine is haunting, and the film is consumed by her. Katherine Waterston is more impressive here than in her breakout role in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice earlier this year, while Patrick Fugit, all grown up, bounces back and forth between friendly bystander and intrusive antagonist with ease.

Perry is content to contribute to the canon of “broken women” films — a subgenre with a rich, troubled history — without upending it. Citing Woody Allen’s Interiors as a reference point for Queen of Earth specifically Allen’s decision to immediately follow a breakout comedy with a stark drama — Perry emulates Allen by diving into a subgenre most closely associated with cinema’s other noted sociopath, Roman Polanski. Allen and Polanski are major influences on Perry, and the filmmaker embraces the controversial, unforgivable divide between art and artist that most shy away from. The resulting tension may come down to a matter of taste, but its impact on the film is undeniable.

The hallmarks of Perry’s films are all here; Queen of Earth plays on the classism and artistic insecurity of the New York literati, while his acid tongue is reserved but more vicious than ever. There isn’t a single character in the film that you’d enjoy spending time with; Perry is kind to them but never forgiving. While Queen of Earth does not impress in the same way that Listen Up Philip or 2011’s The Color Wheel did, it doesn’t strive to. Queen of Earth feels like a minor work in the best way, a labour of love from a team that has developed into a well-oiled machine, playing with genre for the sake of experimentation.

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