The first shot of the ironically titled “Queen of Earth” pretty much sums up what we’ll be getting for the next 90 minutes.
The face of actress Elisabeth Moss as Catherine fills the screen in massive closeup. Her mascara is smeared, giving her a raccoon-ish look. Her nose is red from crying. Her hair is wet and stringy.
And she’s angry/wheedling/pathetic as she hurls insults and accusations at her offscreen lover, who is in the process of dumping her.
Moss may be best known for playing Peggy, the office girl-turned-account executive in cable’s “Mad Men” but — as shown by her work in the miniseries “Top of the Lake” and indie films like “The One I Love” — she’s a fiercely adventurous actress willing to go out on the edge.
In writer/director Alex Roth Perry’s “Queen of Earth” she starts on the edge and swings wildly into the “out there.”
Emotionally bruised and battered, Catherine turns to her oldest and best friend, Virginia (Katharine Waterston), whose parents own a ritzy vacation lake house. The two women will share the idyllic place while Catharine tries to get her head together.
That’ll take some doing. She’s prickly and morose and spends her first day cocooned in her bedroom. Little by little she expands her insular world, eventually moving to the dock to sketch the scenery.
But her relationship with “Ginny” is a weird one, filled with competitive undercurrents, percolating antagonisms and periodic explosions of withering insults.
“I think I’m a terrible friend,” Ginny admits at one point.
No shit, lady.
Meanwhile Catharine is also coping with the death (suicide?) of her famous artist father, for whom she was a sort of personal assistant. Given her unstable emotions, it’s hard to see anybody else ever giving her a job.
Every now and then the film flashes back to the previous summer, when Catharine and her then-boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley) visited Ginny at the lake. It was such an uncomfortable, bitter experience that you wonder it took James an entire year to bail.
Now Ginny is having a fling with Rich (Patrick Fugit), a seemingly nice guy who lives nearby. But Rich comes to resent the Ginny/Catharine dynamic. Nasty things are said.
As a study in both madness and co-dependency, “Queen of Earth” echoes both Polanski’s “Repulsion” and Bergman’s “Persona.” It’s nowhere near as good as those minor classics (indeed, there’s nobody here to root for, with Catharine and Ginny seemingly courting our contempt), but Elisabeth Moss in full frontal meltdown is not easily forgotten.