“It Comes From Male Anxiety and Fear”: Alex Ross Perry and Elisabeth Moss on Female Madness and ‘Queen of Earth’

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If Queen of Earth has a keyword, it’s “claustrophobic.” The term came up again and again during Alex Ross Perry’s screening and discussion of his latest feature last night at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, whether the writer-director was describing his numerous influences — FSLC Programming Director Dennis Lim called Ross Perry “one of the most film-literate filmmakers around,” and with good reason — or the plot of the film itself. Shot in just a few weeks at its single location, a secluded lake house in Carmel, New York, the film explores the intimate, toxic dynamic between best friends Virginia (Katherine Waterston) and Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) as Catherine slowly descends into madness.

Speaking alongside Moss last night, Ross Perry placed Queen of Earth squarely in the tradition of stories about “women coming undone,” a genre that’s simultaneously distinct and diverse, running the gamut from European art films to low-budget American thrillers. Ross Perry cited the FSLC itself as a major influence, having attended its two-part Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective while he was writing, then editing Queen of Earth. Both Martha and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Ross Perry explained, are “single-location movies about women engaged in emotional warfare” — a fair description of the relationship between Virginia and Catherine, who are seen undermining and chafing at each other in flashback long before Catherine’s current troubles.

Ross Perry groups Fassbinder together with contemporaries like Roman Polanski, cheaper American fare like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death or Carnival of Souls, and even Woody Allen’s more straightforwardly dramatic, less genre-reliant Annie Hall follow-up Interiors (a screening of which he was set to introduce just a few hours later) under the umbrella of male filmmakers’ exploration of female insanity. While never quite identifying with the tradition himself, Ross Perry nonetheless offered some insight that could easily be read as self-reflection.

“That’s what’s interesting about it… as a genre, it comes clearly from a male anxiety and fear about how dangerous women might become to you,” he said. “I really do feel like that’s the motivating factor behind it; it’s an interesting and comprehensive way for men to work through their own fear of women. And I think that comes through in a lot of the films. Or if not the fear, to show the power that you believe they could have at any given moment, which is celebratory as well as fearful.”

Moss, for her part, agreed that female madness is often a particularly male concern (NB: Ross Perry did note he’d watched at least one such film by a female director, though he couldn’t remember the name), albeit for different reasons. “I think that women have a lot less tolerance for other women, and we expect a lot,” she explained. “Sticking, of course, to my own opinion, I think we value strength in other women. As a woman, you see another woman go insane, and you’re a little, ‘Get over it!’ It’s just not quite the same thing.” Men, she posited, are thus preoccupied by female madness, whereas women sometimes find it exasperating, or at least less thematically interesting.

Earlier, Moss had described Queen of Earth‘s appeal in terms of its departure from Ross Perry’s previous feature, Listen Up Philip, in which she co-starred with Jason Schwartzman. Just as Interiors had represented a radical pivot for Allen in the aftermath of Annie Hall, Ross Perry had sought a similar tonal shift for Queen of Earth, a choice Moss appreciated: “A lot of newer filmmakers, indie filmmakers, when they have any sort of success with something, they often make the same movie with more money and bigger stars.” Ross Perry, meanwhile, took the opposite approach, working with not just a similar cast, but also the same cinematographer, editor, composer, and costume designer, and taking on a radically different project as a team. “I really respected the decision to go left and do something that was risky and completely different,” she said.

The contrast between Queen of Earth’s ominous isolation and Listen Up Philip, a sharp but lighthearted parody of a certain New York literary archetype, even developed into an on-set joke. “Whenever we would cut on anything where you were covered in tears and filth” — spoiler: an image that recurs rather frequently in the film’s 90-minute running time — “instead of saying ‘Cut,’ one of us would say, ‘If you like Listen Up Philip…‘” The crack got laughs from the audience, but the line also has a ring of truth to it; Queen of Earth may not have the feel of either Ross Perry’s or Moss’ previous work, but that only makes the film a more interesting showcase of their talents.