Today: two films that show what happens when female friendships take a disturbing turn.
The Ones Below (dir. David Farr)
How camp is The Ones Below meant to be? It's an issue for this kind of thriller, especially British thrillers shown to British audiences. We're far more likely to laugh at something out of awkwardness than acknowledge the potentially emotionally disturbing truth of that awkwardness. Also, film and TV black comedies can train us to treat real-life horrific subject matter as funny (a pregnant woman falling down the stairs? hilarious). All this to say that there was occasional, audible laughter during the screening of The Ones Below, but that's not necessarily a mark against the film; it could even be seen as a symptom of how effectively unnerving the central conceit is. As dark as your sense of humour runs, we're always going to be freaked out by a baby in danger, or implied danger. I imagine it would play even stronger with parents as it touches on what must be very common anxieties for them.
Pregnant Kate (Clémence Posey) and Justin (Stephen Campbell Moore) live upstairs while Jon (David Morrissey) and his German wife Teresa (Laura Birn) are the proverbial "ones below", with the creepy habit of leaving their shoes in front of their door (creepy in equal measure because it's un-British and because it's possible to tell at a glance if someone's home). Kate starts to suspect their neighbours of conspiring against her, but is it all in her head?
Posey and Birn have a great dynamic, outwardly friendly but inwardly jealous and competitive. Posey herself, born and raised in France, doesn't quite sound British which adds another edge to her isolation and strained relationship with her mother (Deborah Findlay). While it's really the relationship between the two women that should be key, a lot of their time is spent talking about or pleading their cases to their husbands who are far less interesting or complex. Morrissey in particular isn't given enough to explain his character or make him believable, and in turn many of the film's laughs are his, intentional or not.
There are signs of this being a first film, and that could also explain the laughter - there are a few scenes where we don't quite feel confident in the hands of the filmmaker, writer-director David Farr (he's a playwright and a screenwriter, known for Hanna). The script comes across as bloated but that might only be because a lot of the direction is workmanlike. It requires a great deal of cinematic skill to create a psychodrama, a thriller where the threat is possibly all in the mind and tension is created out of the everyday. Some scenes don't meet that high bar. The style is reminiscent of Tom Hooper - coverage, the wide that slowly tracks laterally, and the occasional strange camera angle, like giving someone too much head room. But even they feel thrown in, not quite deliberate or considered enough to be effective. There's also a repetitive piano motif that quickly becomes tiresome rather than chilling. It's not a bad film necessarily, yet one that misses its potential for either serious or camp thrills.
Queen of Earth (dir. Alex Ross Perry)
Maybe it's unfair to compare The Ones Below to Queen of Earth. Really, it's unfair to compare anyone to Alex Ross Perry. But his latest is also about the relationship between two women, it's also a psychodrama, it also resulted in some laughter. The difference is that Queen of Earth is undeniably cinematic. While even less physically happens in this film, it was one of the most tense and disturbing viewing experiences I've had.
When Catherine's (Elisabeth Moss) boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley) breaks up with her soon after her father has committed suicide, her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston) invites her to her uncle's lake house where they all spent an enjoyable summer last year.
With Queen of Earth Perry gives his trademark caustic dialogue a dramatic spin. His characters' incessant put-downs have a comic veneer in Listen Up Philip and The Color Wheel but they've always been manifestations, coping mechanisms, of deeper irresolvable dysfunctions. Here there's no pretence of comedy, no easy release for the audience (outside of nervous laughter), just one unsettling interaction after another filled with all the petty jealousies and insecurities of a long-time friendship. While the scenario is heightened, a lot of what comes out of Elisabeth Moss's mouth is all too painfully relateable.
Perry could be said to wear his influences on his sleeve, yet which influences? In relation to this film I've seen mention of Polanski, Lynch, Woody Allen's Interiors (with of course Katherine Waterston's father Sam) and Fassbinder's The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant; I would chuck in Perry's contemporaries in the mumblecore/post-mumblecore scene and of course their forefather Cassavetes, as this premise is very much in the low budget, few actors, and shoot in someone's house vein of filmmaking. When you mix enough existing ideas together you get something that feels new while still carrying the warped, faded memory of its predecessors. That lurid red calligraphic title font aside, this is not really the pastiche you might mistake it for from the trailer. The characters are real people and their problems are to be taken seriously, because the film and the outstanding performances demand it. Elizabeth Moss will rightly get most of the attention, playing a psychotic gradually breaking down in a way that makes you laugh, scared and concerned all at once; however, as in comedy, the "straight man" roles are also very important. Katherine Waterston, Patrick Fugit, Kentucker Audley and Kate Lyn Sheil, the latter two only seen briefly in snippets of scenes, are also fantastic. Vital to the film's success is their resisting any type of showiness or theatricality.
Perry, with the help of his collaborators, builds tension out of tiny moments: Sean Price William's cinematography (shot on film, the sun's glinting highlights across the rippling water positively glow while dark nights become a blur of grain); Robert Greene's anti-chronological editing; and Keegan DeWitt's eerie discordant score (reminiscent of Giovanni Fusco's work with Antonioni, L'eclisse in particular). For example, Greene and Perry cut from the group enjoying themselves outside to Catherine looking at herself in the mirror. Did she duck out for a moment? We cut back to the group, then back to Catherine, this time realising that she is sans make-up and we're actually a year later. We realise now the difference between the two summers at the lake house but, unlike a straightforward edit or title card transitioning between these scenes, through this subjective editing style we also realise how inseparable the two experiences are. The past, the memory of a happier time in the same physical space, is constantly intruding on the present. Another stand-out scene has Catherine and Jenny exchange stories about their exes, the ceiling fan creating a pulsing light effect, the camera never cutting but merely panning between the two to show the shifting relationship. The cumulative effect is an indescribable tension that most horror films could only dream of creating; we know it's not going to become a slasher flick, there's not even much threat of violence, but the stakes - total psychological oblivion - are the highest they've ever been.
Yep, this is totally the right guy to write a live-action Winnie the Pooh.