Alex Ross Perry’s four films have shown the influences of such directors as Woody Allen and John Cassavetes. But they’re equally literary, drawing on writers as different as Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth. His debut, “Impolex,” riffed on Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow.”
His previous film, “Listen Up Philip,” dealt with the relationship between a young novelist and a much older one, seemingly based on Roth himself. Roth has always been hobbled by his work’s misogynist streak, which makes books like “My Life as a Man” and “The Humbling” unpleasant reads. While Roth is self-aware about his sexism, he’s not able to fix it. Dare I say that Perry is already better at writing female characters than Roth? While mostly a tale of male misanthropy, “Listen Up Philip” took time out to devote a large section to its protagonist’s girlfriend, played by Elisabeth Moss.
Moss reappears in his latest film, “Queen of Earth,” which devotes itself to relationships between and among men and women. It’s not much less misanthropic than “Listen Up Philip,” but it breaks more taboos along the way; women are supposed to be a lot more likable than these characters.
Catherine (Moss) is about to depart for summer vacation. She really needs a relaxing holiday because she’s going through an awful period in her life. Her father, in whose office she worked, has died, and her boyfriend recently broke up with her. She heads up to Westchester County for the lake house of her friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston). Once she gets there, she becomes preoccupied with her memories of the previous year, which she spent with her ex-boyfriend. Virginia spends a lot of time with her current boyfriend, Rich (Patrick Fugit), and the two women’s bond starts to crumble, especially since Rich seems to resent their inherited privilege.
Moss, best known for her role as Peggy on “Mad Men,” sheds all traces of vanity in “Queen of Earth.” In fact, the very first scene shows her in a fit of rage, crying, and puffy-faced. It’s a state in which the film often finds her. Moss alternates between screaming and whispering. I watched the film on my laptop and occasionally wondered if there was something wrong with the sound, since it gets extremely quiet. The role puts Moss through her full emotional range.
Starting with “The Color Wheel,” Perry has explored charged material in reasonably subtle ways. In that film, he created two siblings who felt that the world was such a horrible place they could only find comfort in each other’s arms — and, even less appealingly, via racism. The word “Jew” is never mentioned in “Listen Up Philip,” but Perry cast Jewish actor Jason Schwartzmann as his protagonist, and the film explores some Jewish men’s attraction to blonde shiksas. (Indeed, Moss dyed her hair for the role.)
“Queen of Earth” examines class: both its female characters are wealthy, which makes the men around them suspicious. At various points, Catherine is described by men as a “spoiled bitch” and “stuck-up brat.” Compared to the men of “Listen Up Philip,” she’s a saint, but there’s some truth to the notion that she’s been devastated by the bursting of her father’s protective bubble.
“Queen of Earth” captures the light around the Hudson River beautifully. Perry depicts lens flares and the sun glaring off the water. However, the bucolic setting isn’t always so tranquil. Some of Perry’s framing makes the lake house look more like a prison. Its wood panels suggest bars, especially as he blocks Virginia and Catherine against and through it. There don’t appear to be any curtains to it, making one a prisoner to the sun.
“Queen of Earth” evokes several classics of ‘60s European cinema, particularly Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion” and Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona.” Its set piece, in which Catherine and Virginia give lengthy monologues in turn as the camera shifts focus to give each character a close-up, especially recalls Bergman. But it draws on another, more American tradition: horror movies in which people go to cabins in the woods and confront zombies or cannibals. In this case, the monsters are only psychological, but they’re still very real. Perry explores the downside of privilege with a rare precision.
QUEEN OF EARTH | Directed by Alex Ross Perry | IFC Films | Opens Aug. 28 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com