Monday, January 18, 2016

Queen of Earth

(Alex Ross Perry, USA, 2015)

An unfortunate miscalculation.  Well-acted, directed and (especially) photographed - the high points of the film are several exquisitely composed shots - the film nonetheless suffers from a tentativeness in its conception.  Starting from the foundation of a claustrophobic relationship study, Perry fragments the narrative and characters, hoping, it would seem, for a cubistic fugue of dark, volatile emotions.  I'll admit my own biases in this regard; I like my naturalism straight-up and supple.  I don't think this precludes flights of abstract fancy, but here, the mixture doesn't set.  Watterson and Moss are excellent performers, but because the audience is refused a stable perspective, their relentless emoting exhausts and alienates rather than affects.  It feels as though Perry didn't trust himself to deliver a captivating character study, or was self-conscious about the limited materials at his disposal: a house, a couple characters, a lake.  And so he submerged the film in a creepy, semi-ironic haze, hinting at formal possibilities but pursuing none of them with conviction.  This doesn't deny the film as a leap of ambition for Perry, who certainly has exhibited impressive formal chops previously.  But it feels too provisional, too easily fractured and suffused with atmosphere - atmosphere as a crutch, rather than as an organic expression of feeling.  The intimations of horror - due not only to the brooding score, but to the frequent lingerings on the characters' pained or crazed faces, which suggest a stabbing, strangling, or dismemberment that never comes - distanced me from the film, mostly because I knew the violence wouldn't arrive.  That would cut against the grain of Perry's forced ambiguity, which becomes tedious.

In the excellent Listen Up Philip, Perry made acid poetry out of the verbal sparring between his characters, putting his impressive talents as a writer in the aid of a fully-realized cinematic world.  The rampant nastiness was tempered with a nervy, comedic buoyancy.  Here, the breezy cruelty of the characters feels arbitrary, even ornamental.  The friendship between Catherine and Virginia doesn't devolve, since it seems to have never existed in the first place; even the sunnier flashbacks are clouded with resentment.  The men are smarmy to the point of cartoonishness.  I looked, then, for some indication that we were being guided by the heavy hand of Catherine's creeping madness, forced into her subjectivity.  I don't mean that I was hoping for a careful delineation between the "real" world and Catherine's world, but for some way of entering into the world of the film, some idea, even a preliminary one, around which to orient my experience.  Bereft of emotional points of entry, we can only hope to seek intellectual ones - but those latter points were absent also.  It is clear that the relationship between Catherine and Virginia is a form of toxic codependency.  But rather than elaborated upon or further developed, this fact is merely re-stated several times throughout the movie, as if repetition alone could offer insight.

So what exactly is Perry's interest here?  It doesn't appear to be psychology, despite the ominous shadings of depression and suicide (not to mention delusional behavior), since there is neither genuine sympathy for, nor curiosity about the inner lives of the characters.  There's no hint of philosophical assertion or exploration, unless callow misanthropy counts.  Also missing is any spiritual dimension (the cinematography almost takes it there, but Perry's directorial gamesmanship clamps tightly down on that possibility). By my lights, then, Perry has crafted what is essentially an exercise in almost pure formalism, vivisecting a potential movie about suffering and despair and producing a thin, ornery sketch.  Given what are shown to be Catherine's pretensions to artistry, and Perry's own taste for perversity, one can't rule out the possibility that this is intentional. 

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