‘Persona’ Non Grata: Reflective Femininity in ‘Mistress America’ and ‘Queen of Earth’

Mistress America 2There’s no logic to how directorial homages, minor or major, crop up en masse in a given year. In 2013 we got a flood of Hitchcock-tinged films, from Stoker to In the House to Berberian Sound Studio to Tom at the Farm, each with varying degrees and facets of influence. It’s odd to so coincidentally see a number of filmmakers scratching that itch all at once, and this year we’ve gotten another coincidental correlation. It might be a stretch to say Persona is influencing every 2015 film depicting female relationships by having them mirror and eventually blur into one another. There doesn’t seem to be an ounce of avant-garde body-blending in Studio Ghibli’s When Marnie Was There (besides its poster), but its protagonists do feel like mirrors for one another. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the third season of NBC’s Hannibal went the full mile with a kaleidoscopic sex montage with two of its prominent woman characters. And let us not forget The Duke of Burgundy‘s hypnotically blurred lines of sexual and emotional dominance and submission.

The list goes on, and may continue through the year’s end, but two films feel particularly close to one another in theme and character, even if they significantly differ in mood. They’re not overly sympathetic films, both focusing on characters driven by self-serving desires or all consuming bitterness. For Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America, it’s closer to the former, as his characters struggle to make their personal professional aspirations work in a world that feels apathetic towards them. Tracy (Lola Kirke) is not so naïve about this fact, but she’s more than willing to leverage her knowledge of it for personal gain. Like a short-form, modern day Great Gatsby, the film follows Tracy, a nearly friendless and isolated college freshman in New York, as she is taken under the wing of soon-to-be sister-in-law Brooke (Greta Gerwig), an avid wannabe socialite with unfettered, self-aggrandizing confidence.

After being land-bound in a college wasteland, Tracy is suddenly whisked away on a year’s worth of social interaction crammed into one night. At this point Mistress America goes into dizzying montage mode as we’re inundated with information about the exuberant, unruly life Brooke lives. For Tracy, it’s a sudden stroke of creative inspiration. For Brooke, it’s just another night of grasping every opportunity to fill her life with creativity, whether or not that creative drive has any lasting value. When Tracy says she wants to write short stories, Brooke’s response is “Me too! Not *short* stories, though.” There’s a self-defeating, instantly forgetting quality to Brooke’s ecstatic business endeavors that she rarely seems aware of, until she quite desperately is.

Mistress AmericaBoth Brooke’s and Tracy’s arcs meet a harried climax as the film’s tempo shifts suddenly from compressed to expanded time. The two are moored with a coterie of secondary and tertiary characters, many of which have ulterior, self-serving motives they’re advancing through this manic intersection in a posh, typically enormous Greenwich Village household. Both Brooke’s and Tracy’s dreams become challenged, broken, rebuilt and so on, and we watch the qualities of their relationship turn on a dime. At first Brooke seems like the one heading for a crash and reality check, at times losing her gung-ho energy until Tracy teaches it back to her again. Tracy’s motivations, however, become gradually more problematic. At once both dutiful protege and unsympathetic commentator of Brooke’s mantras and lifestyles, Tracy’s unsympathetic manipulations feel well in line with the acidic rhythm of Baumbach’s humor, but with shades of hopefulness that feel more in line with his collaborator, co-writer Greta Gerwig.

Coming on the heels of Frances Ha, a slight departure from Baumbach’s typically barbed bitterness, it’s hard not to compare the two. It’s clear that Gerwig lends a bright, beaming, cautious optimism to Baumbach’s style, even considering the cosmic loneliness of their previous film together, but Mistress America feels more decisively Baumbach. Comical neuroses fire on all cylinders as the camera’s perspective lends agency to whoever is talking, because these are not individuals willing to submit the stage to another performer. Sometimes this is conveyed through whirling long-takes on Brooke, displaying a confident control of her space, but when characters are fighting for the spotlight, the image nearly fractures. This is most on display during a confrontation with a woman Brooke badmouthed in the past, where the camera cuts between parties at such a rapid-fire rate that it’s nearly stroboscopic. In other films this tactic feels like lazy editing, but here it’s precise and exhilarating. Mistress America doesn’t hit the same tragicomic grace notes of its predecessor, but it’s just as winningly sympathetic towards those who find their dreams incapable of integrating organically into an indifferent world.

Queen of EarthBut where Mistress America is brought to dazzling life by Gerwig, Queen of Earth is lorded over by the much bleaker voice of Alex Ross Perry. True hope and optimism are nonexistent in the alternate reality his films take place in, for reasons that vary from film-to-film. In The Color Wheel, it’s the lapse between the interior world its lead duo cultivate and the exterior world that taboos their interior one, however shockingly tender it may be. In Listen Up, Philip, it’s the title character’s crippling inability to understand himself and to grow from that understanding. In Queen of Earth, it’s a bit more of a complex formula, because he doesn’t let his characters be comfortably psychologically known, by each other or the audience. The film follows two characters, one whose motivations don’t always seem clear to us; the other whose actions and reactions feel like a total mystery even to herself.

The unifying factor between Mistress America and Queen of Earth is privilege, and how the haven the characters are seeking out is only possible through leveraging that privilege. In Perry’s film, Elisabeth Moss is center-stage as Catherine, a woman seeking peace and communion with her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) after a devastating breakup pushes her further towards the edge after her father’s death. “A week at the lake. Tranquility, peace and quiet, but under the surface lies emotional imbalance. An imbalance that tears open psychic wounds and threatens to shake the very foundations of sanity,” speaks the overtly ominous narration of the film’s exploitation thriller throwback trailer, an alluring extension of its mythos. At times Queen of Earth may struggle to find its voice through the labyrinth of psycho-thriller influences, but it wastes no opportunity in enabling its characters’ voices.

Queen of Earth 2It’s clear that Catherine is in a raw, delicate mental state, but Queen of Earth is just as much Virginia’s story. Her psyche may not be cracking, but the wounds are there from a previous summer getaway when Virginia was the desperate, devastated one and Catherine was the one cheerily above her friend’s suffering. That summer is present in fractured flashbacks, but also in the relish with which Virginia partitions her care and contempt for Catherine. “I feel like I’m seeing you for the first time,” she says with joy as Catherine’s veneer of confidence and stature collapses, revealing that she’s just as helpless a human being, if not more so. It’s not all seething exchanges, as it’s clear there’s compassion between these two friends, most present in an intimate long-take where they trade stories of the ex-boyfriends who’ve emotionally abused them. For a brief moment they’re in unison, before they’re torn apart by, what else, a man.

As Virginia’s jerkwad boyfriend, Rich (Patrick Fugit), whose name is emblematic of his excessive privilege, tears at Catherine’s defenses, we see Elisabeth Moss inhabit multiple emotional modes. She’s at once absolutely and absolutely not identifiable as a strong woman character. She does spend many moments recoiling with a infant-pitched whine, but in key moments she seizes her disillusioned psyche to vanquish her enemies. “You fucking animal. You unrepentant piece of shit,” she rails off at a dinner guest, describing them as the root of all evil and suffering. These characters aren’t afraid to insensitively cut away people they deem toxic to their mental health, and in moments like these, they become the ruler of their domains, seizing the camera’s attention the same way Mistress America‘s Brooke does, though with a more sedate quality to it.

Privilege is a double-edge sword in Queen of Earth, granting these women vigorous agency at key moments, but also sheltering them in a bubble. It’s questionable whether Perry gives his characters enough respectability to avoid being victimized, and at times it seems like Queen of Earth will put them needlessly in competition with one another. Still, there’s something more delicate, fragile and caring about Perry’s often unsympathetic direction this time. The ending can be read as just desserts for one character, or bleak emotional and psychological condemnation for each, and even then the moral uncertainty refuses to lift. We’re certain about what we feel, but not what we should learn from that feeling; the same disconnection of feeling and understanding that plagues Catherine and Virginia.

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