Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / Alex Ross Perry’s gothic, resolutely arthouse chamber piece Queen of Earth is a fascinating study in the ominous subtext of friendship and the diabolical social neediness of even those who claim to hanker a respite from people. Elisabeth Moss immersively plays Catherine, an increasingly unhinged young artist whose best friend Virginia (a very good Katherine Waterston) invites her to her parents’ bucolic vacation retreat to recover from the traumatic breakup of a relationship she had considered airtight and invulnerable. The backstory is revealed via unframed intercuts that, along with the contemporaneous narrative, may represent actual personal interaction or interior monologue – it doesn’t really matter. The tone throughout is archly lugubrious, nicely balanced between comical insanity and dire creepiness. Perry borrows skillfully from Hitchcock, Kubrick, and Polanski as well as Bergman: everyone seems to be gaslighting everyone else.
While Queen of Earth is a stark departure from Perry’s knowingly talky, acidulous, and peripatetic Listen Up, Philip, both films evince his keen interest in what makes artists tick. Catherine is an aspiring painter (one of her drawings is shown in the poster at top) who has benefited from her art-star father’s reputation, but latterly suffered on account of his vaguely scandalized death (there’s a mild whiff of Thomas Kinkade here), and is now dismissed by some – including Virginia’s unctuous fuck-buddy Rich (Patrick Fugit) – as a product of nepotism. But Virginia herself seems to expect the portrait that Catherine has her sit for, coyly withheld throughout most of the film, to be a work of expressive realistic beauty. Instead, she beholds a crazed harridan, primitively painted and basking in nuance-free red light – a petulant parody of an early-Renaissance Madonna. When Virginia’s abbreviated shriek of discovery cuts to Catherine’s derisive cackle, there’s a suggestion that however debilitated in worldly terms, an anointed artist – as Catherine was at least by Virginia’s lights – possesses profound powers of disruption and subversion that make her a tyrant as well as a narcissist, as the movie’s title implies.
It would be naïve for anyone to claim that artists are generally kind or well-adjusted, and Perry is anything but naïve. But it’s encouraging that such a talented and precocious young filmmaker – he is all of 31 – appreciates their awesome potency by way a distinctively funny, sussed, and discomfiting movie.
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