The memoir Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest begins with details of her relationship to John Everett Millais’ painting of Ophelia. If Medusa represents the foremost image of female anger in the Western world, then Ophelia is her counterpoint by embodying women’s depression. I have loved Millais’ Ophelia since I first saw it years ago. It’s beautiful and haunting. The flowers in the river around her ache with glorious color and the promise of a Spring she may never experience. Her mouth is open as if about to speak. But what will she say? Will she ask for help? Will she tell us her story in her own words? Or would we even care? When it comes to the ways women deal with mental illness, we tend to make up our minds quickly, sizing one up, looking for the cracks. I’m reminded of the time I invited an acquaintance over for whiskey, a year and a half ago, to catch up. Obliquely, I told her of how I felt that I was falling apart and unsure I could keep it together. I mentioned a panic attack from just a day prior. She looked me over with mild interest and said something to the effect of, “You look fine to me.” There was a hint of accusation in her tone. As if I needed to be actively falling apart in front of her eyes with my hair wild and dressed unkempt for my emotional state to be real. I don’t talk to her anymore.
Forrest’s relationship with Millais’ painting is similar to my own. She writes, “A long time later — after I’d been in love — I knew that [Ophelia] could not let go of his postcoital scent, stronger than the smell of the flowers on the banks as she drifted by. The flowers beg her to stay in the moment. His scent keeps her locked in the past. […] I was afraid, at thirteen, that I saw in her my own destiny.”
The way we can be haunted by our lovers and the ones we lost, stuck in the loop of depression that Forrest describes, reminds me of the 2015 film Queen of Earth. Written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, the film follows in the tradition of other pretty-white-girls-going-mad films like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. It’s billed as a psychological thriller but I think it’s something far more terrifying: a horror film in which a woman is made monstrous by her own depression. On the surface, the film is about Catherine Hewitt (Elisabeth Moss), a young woman on tenuous ground who is unraveling with frightening speed after the suicide of her renowned artist father and a devastating breakup that the film opens with. She turns to her good friend Virginia “Ginny” Lowell (Katherine Waterston), spending time in her lake house retreat similar to the previous year when the two were in the exact opposite positions they find themselves in now. But things between these women grow strained due to Catherine’s increasing insanity and the presence of Virginia’s new boyfriend, Rich (Patrick Fugit). The film shifts backwards and forwards in time to give us a greater understanding of who these two women are and the terrain of their friendship.
I namechecked Queen of Earth in my original introduction of The Feminine Grotesque because the film and the interviews from its cast (and director) represent many of the issues inherent in films about madwomen (directed by men) who can’t fully see their interiority. Much of the power of Queen of Earth comes from how claustrophobic it feels and how much of the production mirrors the dual personalities at its center. Elisabeth Moss’ performance is indeed dynamic. She shifts from an outright ugliness (her body contorting, eyes red and framed by dripping mascara) to a cool facade with a sly smirk and an incredible amount of self-hate simmering beneath the surface. But it’s evident, despite Moss’ prowess, that she doesn’t sympathize with the character she’s embodying. Worse, like many of the characters in the film, her depression (and inability to reckon with it) is something to despise her for.
This is evident in many of the interviews Moss conducted for Queen of Earth, with this excerpt below being one I couldn’t get out of my head while watching the film.
“Moss, for her part, agreed that female madness is often a particularly male concern (NB: Ross Perry did note he’d watched at least one such film by a female director, though he couldn’t remember the name), albeit for different reasons. “I think that women have a lot less tolerance for other women, and we expect a lot,” she explained. “Sticking, of course, to my own opinion, I think we value strength in other women. As a woman, you see another woman go insane, and you’re a little, ‘Get over it!’ It’s just not quite the same thing.” Men, she posited, are thus preoccupied by female madness, whereas women sometimes find it exasperating, or at least less thematically interesting.”
It takes a lot of privilege and perhaps a deep misunderstanding of depression (which is the illness circled around in Queen of Earth) to say, without irony, that a woman coming undone needs to just “get over it.”
There is an exchange in one of the many flashbacks where Virginia discusses a summer fling with a kind man who wanted more of it than she did. He didn’t seem to do anything wrong. But she saw his desire as something sickly and codependent. The music makes Queen of Earth feel less like a portrait of a woman dealing with depression (and her longtime friendship cracking under the pressure) and more like a horror film. From the moment we meet Catherine, she is set up to be nothing more than a monster to be feared and reviled.
“I’m seeing you for the first time… I always thought you were so perfect,” Virginia condescendingly remarks past the halfway point. It’s actually quite disgusting how Virginia doesn’t seem to understand Catherine’s depression and judges her for it. Despite writer/director Perry saying he sympathizes with Catherine, that isn’t evident in the film from the way she’s framed from the very beginning — consistently looked down upon by the camera — to the completely inauthentic understanding of female friendship. Even the flashbacks, which are meant to frame how the women have essentially traded emotional positions and their history, fail to make much of a case as to why they’re close. There is something intrinsically toxic to their relationship. Sure, that can exist between women, as many of my highschool and college friends were ultimately unhealthy. But, Queen of Earth doesn’t understand the closeness, sisterhood and uncomfortable co-dependence that often creates the foundation for such toxic female relationships. It’s hard to buy that these two like or need each other, which ultimately does the story a disservice. There are occasional moments that prove intriguing, especially as Catherine draws a portrait of Virginia, or her protectiveness when it comes to who can call her by her nickname “Ginny,” but they aren’t enough to create a more authentic emotional arc.
Queen of Earth inadvertently touches on something that many people who deal with mental illnesses (like depression) fear. That our loved ones hate us for our illness. That we’ll never get better. That there is something intrinsically wrong and broken within us that will never heal. But Queen of Earth lacks the nuance and empathy necessary to understand that the true horror Catherine is dealing with is not necessarily about how others see her, but how she sees herself.
Angelica Jade Bastién is a writer based in Chicago. She has been published by The Atlantic, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Movie Mezzanine and writes regularly for Vulture. You can find her on Twitter @angelicabastien and her website madwomenandmuses.com.