Queen Of Earth follows the weeklong vacation of old friends Catherine and Virginia—played brilliantly by Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss and her costar Katherine Waterson—as old conflicts and old traumas threaten to unravel their relationship, and along with it, their sanity.
Director Alex Ross Perry—reuniting with Moss after last year’s Listen Up Philip and working again on 16 millimeter film—has made a small movie, made on a single set with a budget that you can imagine amounts to about a nickel and a prayer. But through the power of genre, he has tapped into one of the oldest cinematic traditions and the kind of spectacle that only a movie theater can provide: the voyeuristic thrill of watching a woman descend into madness.
Just as David Fincher and Gillian Flynn did last year with their autumn hit, Gone Girl, Alex Ross Perry has unleashed the mythic power of the crazy lady with Queen Of Earth.
It’s no accident that many of cinema’s most iconic characters are crazy ladies, from Blanche DuBois to Carrie to, more recently, Natalie Portman as the Black Swan. The archetype stays popular through the years partly because she’s a blast to be around, assuming you’ve got the protection of the movie screen between you two. One of the most profound pleasures of Queen Of Earth is that for all its cinematic sophistication, the movie is just a damn hoot. It’s filled with the kind of brutal verbal humor that was once common in Hollywood filmmaking, but which made its exit sometime around the entrance of realism and the Method.
No one worth knowing hasn’t felt a little crazy at some point. But crazy is difficult to indulge in life—it’s too inconvenient to your friends, you family, your lovers, your employers. To be crazy then is to either feel entitled to be crazy or to lose control of the mechanism that makes it possible to stop the slip into psychosis. What makes Perry’s manipulation of the scenario in Queen Of Earth so rich is that we watch Moss waver between the two motivations. Is she going crazy because she can’t help it or is she crazy because she’s chosen to stop being sane?
Why is it so satisfying to watch crazy women on screen? If I saw two guys do what Moss and Waterson do in Queen Of Earth, I’d be hailing the coming of a queer cinema genius. Or in the case of two straight men, I’d be rolling my eyes, counting the minutes, and debating walking out of the theater.
Maybe it’s just me, but frankly, crazy men at the movies piss me off. I can turn on the news on any given day and watch the aftermath of a man’s moment of insanity. Men’s insanity usually expresses itself in violence and that violence is often aimed at women. The fact that crazy men are so often idolized—the cult of the Joker comes to mind—is to me, a sign of how eager we are to find purpose in men’s entitlement. No, no, the Joker isn’t just another common asshole, he has a grand vision of anarchy!
Women are asked to be so many completely opposing things—madonna, whore, caregiver, victim, hot chick, Cool Girl—we should have all lost our minds by now. We’re supposed to work twice as hard for half as much—OK, 78 percent as much—in our careers as well as in love. Modern society is dependent on the irrational sanity of women: We have to see our unreasonable lot in life and choose it anyway for our stupid civilization to function. It’s our sanity, not our madness that’s perverse. The crazy lady movie at its best is an act of catharsis—and Queen Of Earth is the best that’s come in quite some time.
That some feminists have turned on the crazy lady movie is indicative of our pathological fixation on appearing non-pathological—the kind of woman-centric identity politics where the key to the promised land is effortless, boardroom-ready agency and decorum. Gone Girl is misogynist because it might make men think women who report rapes are all liars like Amy? Black Swan is sexist because men might think high-achieving women are all frigid like Nina Sayers? Lars Von Trier hates women because his female protagonists are always unhealthy and it might give men the wrong idea?
Forget being crazy in real life, we can’t even let ourselves be crazy at the movies, lest men think that’s an excuse to stop extending us the courtesy of a seat at the table.
We self-police not just ourselves, but the fictional extensions of ourselves as well. In turn we hide from the parts of our imagination that actually produce a response. Men are freaked out by movies about women who have come unhinged the way Moss’s character Catherine does in Queen Of Earth, and goddamn it, they should be. Crazy lady characters have lost the freedom to answer to no one but themselves. And sometimes you have to take a trip inside the uncanny to understand what power actually looks like.
There’s a moment in Queen Of Earth when Catherine pulls herself together to look into the eyes of Rich, the man who has shifted from an acquaintance to a nuisance to an outright antagonist in her eyes. For a moment, she readies herself. Then in one of the film’s most satisfying unbroken takes, she lays into him with the kind of crystal clarity that the universe usually reserves for the eye of a hurricane.
“How dare you, you unrepentant piece of shit?”
The moment is hilarious because by the standards of normal interaction, Catherine is committing the conversational equivalent of nuclear-grade overkill. But even as I laughed at Catherine’s dramatics, I felt no sympathy for Rich. Instead, like a moth to a flame, I was drawn into the miracle of Moss’s expression. The look on her face was pure, deranged triumph.