12 October 2015

LFF 2015 Part I: Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend (Queen of Earth Review)

The London Film Festival has rolled around again and, like last year, I'm going to be out of the country for a fair portion of it. This, together with the fact that the day BFI members' booking opened was an insanely busy day at work for me, meant that I only ended up with two tickets. I had my eye on the screening of The Lobster and even got a ticket into my basket at one point, before the BFI server gods passed down their fearsome judgement.

However, I did manage to get a ticket for Queen of Earth, which screened at the lovely Hackney Picturehouse last night, and included a Q&A with director Alex Ross Perry and the two stars, Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston. I'm a big fan of Moss and have had a bit of a thing for co-star Patrick Fugit ever since Almost Famous, and it is perhaps fortunate that I didn't realise until yesterday that Ross Perry's previous film was Listen Up, Philip — possibly my least favourite film of the year so far, with its unlikeable characters and tedious plot.

The characters in Queen of Earth aren't much more sympathetic but I enjoyed the film a lot more. Well, enjoyed isn't really the right word for a deeply unsettling and haunting movie about the twisted and destructive relationship between two childhood best friends, but it is well made and has a stunning central performance from Moss.

The film opens with a long, single-take shot of Catherine (Moss), who is breaking up with her boyfriend who cheated on her soon after the death of her father — a well-known artist and her mentor. After this devastating monologue, we see Catherine, seemingly more composed, heading to the lake house, which belongs to her best friend Ginny (Waterston)'s family.

Catherine needs a holiday and some R&R with someone who knows her and cares about her, but from the start, there is a tension between the two women. Passive-aggressive remarks and snide comments dominate the conversation, and Rich (Fugit), the neighbour, keeps coming over to hang out with Ginny, interrupting Catherine's time alone with her friend. It's hard to imagine the pair ever being emotionally close. These scenes are interspersed with flashbacks to one year earlier when Ginny is suffering from some deep sadness, while Catherine is all happiness and light — she even brings her boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley), which rubs Ginny up the wrong way. It soon becomes clear that they are like a see-saw: the lower one sinks, the more the other takes pleasure in her misfortune.

It's hard to say more without spoiling the film and, in any case, it's really more character-driven than plot-driven, but suffice to say that it is the uneasiest and most unsettling 90 minutes that I have spent at the cinema in a long time, and I suspect that the themes of friendship, loss, bitterness and vengeance will remain with me for some time. It is also beautifully shot — "on real film", Moss explained during the Q&A — and as well as the striking images of the water, sky and trees, it has a grainy, 1970s feel. The chilling, thriller-esque score and the vintage title cards and credits also suggest decades past. (It is never clear when the film is set — there are no mobile phones, only giant cordless landline phones, and no gadgetry.)

During the Q&A, Perry explained that they shot the film in 12 days — they shot every scene in the order it appears in the film, even the flashbacks — and that Moss was involved in the project from the beginning, although they only signed up Waterston a few days before shooting began. There's a long, single-take scene in the middle of the film where Ginny and then Catherine talk about their failed relationships while the camera zooms in and then pans very slowly across their faces. This took a few takes as the first time, they ran out of film one sentence before the end. The composer, Keegan DeWitt, worked on Listen Up, Philip, too and was able to record the score as the film was being shot, which explains why it fits so perfectly and has such a big role in the tension.

"It's a relaxing place," Perry said, of the setting, "but nothing relaxing happens." He also talked about the title of the film, which he says combines images of nature and the elements with the idea of female entitlement — women carrying themselves like they deserve greatness despite what others tell them. This actually made me like him — and the film — less, although the male characters aren't really any more pleasant. In any case, don't let that — or Perry's previous works — put you off going to see Queen of Earth; it really is quite an accomplished film.

Last night also reminded me of what the London Film Festival is all about. Sometimes, it's easy to get caught up in the glitz and glamour of A-list casts and red carpet premieres, but the screening and Q&A at Hackney was much more low-key but felt very intimate; Moss, Waterston and Perry were even hanging around outside the screening and were all very approachable. You wouldn't have got that at the Odeon West End!

NB: I had a great seat but, as a result of only having my iPhone with me and the poor lighting during the Q&A, the photo quality isn't great.

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