Michelle: “Small world.”
– Queen of Earth
Cinema can produce, through a variety of techniques, a sense of claustrophobia. Still, although featuring in genres ranging from horror to action to psychological drama, filmic “claustrophobia” often eludes definition. Rather, as a viewer, you know it when you feel it. This article defines cinematic claustrophobia as a feeling constituting closeness, entrapment and threat, and explores how this is represented in two films directed by American filmmaker Alex Ross Perry. Queen of Earth (2015) and Her Smell (2018) are both psychologically thrilling character studies of emotionally unhinged women portrayed by Elisabeth Moss. The characters in these films face claustrophobia within the narrative, but Perry’s filmmaking techniques – primarily framing, camera movement and sound – also force this sensation onto the audience. While the focus here is on Perry as director and writer, it is worth highlighting his close-knit cinematic collaborators who he works with on all films: editor Robert Greene, cinematographer Sean Price Williams and composer Keegan DeWitt, who all contribute significantly to the films’ striking audio and visual aesthetic.
In this article, I will first clarify my use of the term “claustrophobia” in a cinematic sense, shaped in part by engagement with previous discussions of claustrophobia, emotion and affect in film studies. Second, the article will analyse Queen of Earth and the claustrophobia experienced by Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) and Virginia (Katherine Waterstone) in an idyllic holiday house surrounded by open space. Third, the article will analyse Her Smell, which constitutes the bulk of the analysis. In stark contrast to Queen of Earth’s pastoral, tranquil location, Her Smell takes place primarily in tight, enclosed spaces. Unlike Catherine in Queen of Earth, Becky (Elisabeth Moss) in Her Smell succeeds in breaking free from her psychological prison, which Perry marks with a radical stylistic shift from claustrophobia to intimacy.
The general definition of claustrophobia is “abnormal dread of being in closed or narrow spaces”.1 We can think of cinematic claustrophobia as filmmaking that evokes a sense of claustrophobia in the audience, that panicky feeling of confinement to a space. There are, of course, many films about characters literally trapped or otherwise unable to leave a space, whether this is a town (Wake in Fright, Ted Kotcheff, 1971), a house (Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock, 1957), a room (Room, Lenny Abrahamson, 2015), or even a coffin (Enterrado / Buried, Rodrigo Cortés, 2010). The characters are forced to remain in place, through captivity or circumstance. In other films, the entrapment is not quite so literal. The characters are stuck in a mindset or state of being, a psychological prison created by themselves and/or others. Such is the entrapment of Catherine and Becky in Queen of Earth and Her Smell, respectively. Whether characters are confined literally or figuratively, filmmakers may use cinematography, editing and sound to create empathy in their audience, making the viewer feel as trapped as the character.
Few academic texts engage with the precise concept of claustrophobia in cinema, but the ones that do focus on similar elements and techniques. In his thesis, “Hitchcock’s Cinema of Claustrophobia”, Scott Edward Peeler describes how several Hitchcock films render houses as “areas of confusion, terror, suspicion, and entrapment”.2 He analyses the role of camera angle and shot selection in producing this feeling. Focusing on a genre rather than a single auteur, Vincent M. Gaine examines claustrophobia and immediacy in the ‘new action realism’ films of Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Greengrass and Michael Mann. Exploring their adherence to a kind of realism and grittiness, Gaine writes that, “The visual aesthetic of these films consistently features intimacy and immediacy to a claustrophobic degree, which tends to obscure the image, rather than favor transparency.”3 The “visual aesthetic” is analysed through choices in editing, mise-en-scène and camera movement.
There are many scholarly works which focus more broadly on the filmic depiction of emotion, and the way bodily sensations can be engendered in the viewer.4 Indeed, cinema studies has shifted to a strong focus on affect and emotion in the last few decades.5 One of the most notable works in this vein is Linda Williams’ article “Film Bodies”. Williams explores the “bodily excess” of “gross” genres – horror, pornography and melodrama – where onscreen bodies are wracked with intense emotion that is involuntarily mimicked by the spectator.6 Unlike comedy, Williams argues, where viewers’ laughter is often in response to deadpan characters, “gross genres” are deemed excessive because the fear, arousal or sadness of the protagonist is mimicked by the viewer.7 But while Williams examines passionate emotions, cinematic claustrophobia makes more use of what Sianne Ngai calls “ugly feelings”, which offer no release and can be sustained indefinitely.8 These emotions, including anxiety and paranoia, are “weaker and nastier” than grand emotions.9 However, I argue, they may be conveyed and mimicked just as powerfully in the viewer’s body as the emotions that Williams examines.
Drawing on these explorations of claustrophobia, emotion and affect, and with consideration of the two films under analysis, I contend that cinematic claustrophobia can involve three aspects: closeness, entrapment and threat. Closeness can relate to the proximity between characters, or the small size of a space. It can also be conveyed through the closeness of the camera to its subjects, what Gaine describes in action realism as “disorienting visual grammar” achieved through “unsteady handheld cinematography” and a multitude of close-ups.10 Indeed, the close-up, as the name suggests, is a prime way of conveying closeness, whether this is a “sharp sense of intimate exposure”11 or an overwhelming “instance of the gigantic, the monstrous”.12 Because closeness can also convey a positive sense of intimacy, as will be discussed later in the analysis of Her Smell, claustrophobia must entail something more than mere proximity.
The second aspect of cinematic claustrophobia, therefore, is entrapment, where characters are kept in place, even if by their own psyche. See the women of Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966), for example – a clear influence on Queen of Earth – or the grieving protagonists of Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973). Closely related to this is the final aspect: threat, where the possibility of danger is always present. In new action realism, the visual aesthetic leads to a sense that “enemies are unseen, the terrain is uncertain”.13 Gaine also notes that even in scenes that are not action-oriented, filmic techniques still convey “claustrophobic immediacy”, suggesting danger is never far away.14
Closeness, entrapment and threat together can create the feeling of claustrophobia that filmmakers engender in their audience – and it is up to the filmmaker whether they continue this torment until the credits roll, or offer a reprieve. In Queen of Earth, Alex Ross Perry offers no such deliverance, while in Her Smell, the protagonist – and the audience – is finally set free.
Queen of Earth: The Only Way Out is Through
Alex Ross Perry has said that he’s “interested in lonely people, specifically lonely people going through the worst time in their lives.”15 From the first shot, Catherine does indeed seem to be going through the worst time in her life, and the audience is dragged into her space through the film’s style. James (Kentucker Audley), her boyfriend, is breaking up with her because he feels their relationship is “suffocating”, shortly after her father had an “accident”. Pressed up against an extreme close-up of Catherine, rendered “gigantic… monstrous” with wild eyes and smudged makeup, we understand exactly the feeling of suffocation. 16 A brief cut to James is the only reprieve of the scene. Following the breakup, Catherine goes to see her old friend Virginia at Virginia’s parents’ lake-house. The house is beautiful and spacious, surrounded by woods. Yet Perry continually makes this open, bucolic space a confining and threatening one, primarily through camera and sound.
Catherine and Virginia inhabit that sickeningly entrancing mode of friendship where they don’t actually like each other. Virginia brims with contempt for Catherine, and Catherine detests Virginia’s lack of sympathy and her relationship with next-door neighbour Rich (Patrick Fugit). For all the space around them, the two women can’t get away from each other and the truth of their mutual loathing. Perry contrasts pleasantness – a rippling lake, bird calls – with a feeling of being confined. In wide exterior shots, the trees form a border, hemming people in, while close-ups of Catherine and Virginia are cut tight. Catherine craves closeness, but there is something off-kilter about this, from the way she tucks herself into bed with comical obsessiveness, to the flashback of her and James holding hands at the kitchen table and speaking in unison. She craves closeness with Virginia, too, despite their animosity – we see her fearfully telling an unseen caller Virginia is watching her. In one of the few tender scenes in the film, the two women sit side-by-side, hardly looking at each other, talking about past relationships. As Catherine talks, the camera slowly zooms in on Virginia, then drifts gently over to Catherine, then back to Virginia, as though buoyed by a wave. Even this closeness is haunted, however, with both of them carrying unreadable facial expressions. Catherine articulates her entrapment, “in this self-perpetuating cycle of defeat”, repeating “I can’t get out of it, because I can’t get out of it, because I can’t get out of it.” This shared vulnerability doesn’t improve the tension between Catherine and Virginia, rather, it feels as though the sequence was a dream conjured by their waning affection.
Sound, as well as camera, underscores the claustrophobia of Catherine’s existence. In multiple scenes, noise made by someone else disproportionately dominates the soundscape – Virginia eating chips, a neighbour with a leaf-blower, people laughing – causing Catherine distress and dragging the painful experience into the ears of the audience. Keegan DeWitt’s score begins minimally, comprised mainly of gentle glockenspiel, but as the narrative unfolds and so too does Catherine’s madness, the score becomes progressively ominous, introducing low bass strings and even a choir vocalising. The feeling is one of increasing weight, as Catherine seems like she’s being crushed mentally and physically. She feels as though “the bones are grinding underneath [her] skin”, her own body a trap; every encounter with Virginia seems airless, two predators circling, wondering how to strike most devastatingly. When Virginia hosts a party, a guest, Michelle (Kate Lyn Sheil), enquires about Catherine’s father stealing money from people – the implication being that he committed suicide shortly after this was found out – and Catherine descends into hallucinations, imagining the guests crowding her, pawing at her, attacking her. The score in this sequence almost brings to mind Goblin’s work on Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977), with plinking piano layered over harsh buzzing and threatening strings that build to a crescendo as Catherine screams.
Catherine is trapped under the weight of her grief, her paranoia, and her disgust towards Virginia. But ultimately, she stops fighting – she succumbs to the claustrophobia, burrowing into the madness, as though the only way out is through. Her hysterical laughter becomes more frequent, and she finally lets loose the flood of her rage against Rich, calmly and quietly calling him a “fucking animal” and an “unrepentant piece of shit” before blaming her father’s suicide on the existence of people like him. When Rich confronts her later, she tries to either strangle or seduce him, possibly both, and then collapses in tears on Virginia. The thrillingly bold final moment of the film smash cuts from Virginia alone, inhaling to sob, to Catherine cackling hysterically in extreme close-up, then a freeze frame with the title. Their final exclamations break the tension for both of them: Virginia lets herself be vulnerable, while Catherine loses herself. Her laughter continues over the credits – not even the end of the film brings escape. Despite the open world around them, and the openness of the house, the claustrophobia is generated by her, in her. Nothing, it seems, can set Catherine free.
Her Smell: Fetching the Bolt Cutters
Unlike in Queen of Earth, in Her Smell Perry allows his tortured protagonist to break free, releasing herself but also everyone around her who was damaged by her. The film’s structure is a series of contained set-pieces: five linear sequences, detailing the fall and recovery of Becky Something and her band Something She, each prefaced by a flashback of the band from the beginning of their fame. The five vignettes take place within single locations, an unspecified amount of time elapsing between each one. The film is edited in such a way as to conjure claustrophobia through its very structure, as the audience realises there is no reprieve from a scene until the break for the next one. Each sequence feels boxed in – we never see the characters travel between locations, furthering this impression – but the utterly wild camera movement and sound design suggest anything could happen. For most of the film, everything feels dangerous.
This feeling of danger is centred around Becky, a riot grrrl frontwoman with a colossal ego and substance abuse issues. Physically and verbally Becky is unstoppable, shifting within seconds from furious to terrified to playful to cruel, adopting different voices and accents, singing, shouting, whispering. She exhausts and torments her bandmates, Mari (Agyness Deyn) and Ali (Gayle Rankin), her ex-partner and the father of her child, Danny (Dan Stevens), her manager (Eric Stoltz), and her mother (Virginia Madsen).
Becky’s dizzying emotional display is matched by the camera; as Becky twirls and stalks, the camera circles her, dancing with her, spinning. Sean Price Williams’ camera occupies a strange position not unlike an invisible documentarian, as people almost back into it or get so close they blur. The camera becomes still when it lingers on moments of quiet, like Danny and Ali commiserating together on a couch, or Becky’s mother struggling to talk to her daughter. These rare moments of stillness only demonstrate the scarcity of calmness in Becky’s life. At other times, the camera jitters and judders as it moves amongst the characters, practically hanging off them. Calm camera movement slips into frenzy when danger erupts, such as when Becky, previously serene, starts to argue viciously with Ali in the recording studio. The more intense the emotions, the wilder the camera movement. When Mari starts fighting with Becky, then storms out to a bathroom, the camera careens drunkenly as Mari punches a mirror and snorts cocaine, zooming right up to her nose and chin in suffocating close-up. Throughout these scenes, the sound design is unsettling, calling to mind Mica Levi’s score for Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2013): squeals like hinges, repeating organ trills as though someone is doing a soundcheck, slow pulsing noises like objects colliding underwater. The effect is disorienting, because it sounds like nothing and everything, impossible to connect with real life. This reinforces the claustrophobic feeling generated by the film’s structure, as though one is being held in an unfamiliar and threatening environment, holding their breath for the break.
For most of the film, Becky gets too close – as Mari puts it, “you can’t be fully acquainted with Becky Something until you want her to fuck off.” Touch and closeness are a source of threat, a power play. Becky grabs her baby and runs away, causing panic. Becky and Mari grab each other’s faces while fighting. Becky intimidates upcoming band the Aker Girls by stroking their faces and biting their necks while they pretend not to be scared. Perry sets up a dynamic wherein closeness equals fear. The camera movement and sound design pull the audience into a claustrophobic world where nothing is predictable, where quiet just signals the pause before an explosion. But then, suddenly, he changes everything.
There is no glimpse of nature, or anything of the exterior world, for one hour and eighteen minutes of Her Smell. The fourth flashback, however, takes place on a veranda with greenery in the background, and the fourth vignette opens in a house with visible greenery out the window. Immediately, the world feels more open, delivering recognition that the audience has been cloistered until now. There’s further radical stylistic change in this vignette. As Becky makes tea alone, then deals with the arrival of Danny and her daughter Tama (now primary school-aged), the camera is still, holding on characters for a long time, no more swinging or careening. The room is full of light and warm colours, and there are no more ominous noises – no non-diegetic sound at all, in fact. When Becky and Danny talk, the close-ups are no longer suffocating and invasive, but head-and-shoulder shots that allow the audience to see characters’ full reactions. Aside from shot-reverse-shot, these scenes of dialogue utilise wide shots in profile, presenting the characters on equal terms, without dominance or threat. The overall impact is staggering, as though the audience has fallen into a completely different film.
Danny says he brought Mari with him, and Becky tells him she needs a moment before he brings her in. He leaves, and Tama runs over, leading to the film’s most astonishing scene: the girl asks Becky to play a song “that reminds you of me”, and Becky, in a single take, sits alongside her daughter at the piano and plays and sings the entirety of Bryan Adams’ “Heaven”. At the end of the song, the film cuts to Mari standing in the doorway with tears in her eyes. That this doesn’t feel at all cheesy – indeed, it feels transcendent – is perhaps because this Becky is so starkly different to the Becky the audience has watched curse and scream her way through the film. Her closeness is no longer repulsive, but intimate and repentant. At the end of the scene, Becky walks outside into bright light, washed-out and baptismal. In the final vignette, although back in the enclosed space of the performance venue, closeness continues to signify intimacy. Becky initiates a séance, everyone holding hands; she huddles in real closeness with her band; and at the end of their show, Becky holds her daughter like a life-raft, bringing the film to an end.
The still camera, the lack of uncanny sounds, and the warm light in the fourth vignette mark a radical change in Becky: she’s broken free of the prison that held her, embracing a meaningful relationship with her daughter and making amends with the people she hurt. Becky is clearly based on a composite of riot grrrl musicians, including Courtney Love. But Becky’s transformation, her hard work to free herself, also brings to mind the ethos of Fiona Apple, particularly her 2020 album Fetch the Bolt Cutters. Of the title track, Apple says, “It’s about breaking out of whatever prison you’ve allowed yourself to live in, whether you built that prison for yourself or whether it was built around you and you just accepted it. … Fetch the fucking bolt cutters and get yourself out of the situation that you’re in — whatever it is that you don’t like.”17 The shift in Her Smell from claustrophobia to intimacy symbolises Becky’s move to fetch the bolt cutters, as it were. When Perry marks this with a radical stylistic shift, he cuts free not only his protagonist, but his audience too.
In both Queen of Earth and Her Smell, Alex Ross Perry presents an audience with emotionally unhinged protagonists who feel claustrophobic – a feeling represented by the combination of closeness, entrapment and threat. Catherine of Queen of Earth craves closeness with Virginia even as she grows fearful of her, and deals with her feelings of entrapment by succumbing to madness. While she cannot escape, Becky of Her Smell does. With time and struggle, she transforms from an aggressive egomaniac who uses touch to intimidate others, to a repentant woman trying to re-establish intimacy with those she has hurt. In both films, Perry uses camera and sound to push the claustrophobia of the characters onto the audience. Tight framing, invasive close-ups, jittery camera movement, and ominous and discordant sound conjure a feeling of claustrophobia in the viewer. But in Her Smell, Perry uses a radical stylistic shift from claustrophobia to intimacy to convey Becky’s altered state. When viewed together, these two films demonstrate the power of Perry’s claustrophobic filmmaking techniques, which are thrown into even sharper relief once the audience is set free.
This article has been peer-reviewed.
- Merriam-Webster, definition of claustrophobia. ↩
- Scott Edward Peeler, The Dynamics of Proximity: Hitchcock’s Cinema of Claustrophobia, Masters Thesis, University of the Pacific, 1988, p. 7. ↩
- Vincent M. Gaine, “New Action Realism: Claustrophobia, Immediacy, and Mediation in the Films of Kathryn Bigelow, Paul Greengrass, and Michael Mann” in James Kendrick (ed.), A Companion to the Action Film, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2019, pp. 289-305, here p. 292. ↩
- See, of many examples, Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2000; Greg Singh, Feeling Film: Affect and Authenticity in Popular Cinema, Routledge, New York, 2014; Wanda Strauven (ed.), The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2006. ↩
- Gregory Flaxman, “Once More, with Feeling: Cinema and Cinesthesia,” Substance vol. 45 no. 3, 2016, pp. 174-189, here p. 174. ↩
- Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly vol. 44 no. 4, 1991, pp. 2-13, here p. 4. ↩
- Williams, p. 4. ↩
- Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 2005, pp. 6-7. ↩
- Ngai, p. 7. ↩
- Gaine, p. 296. ↩
- David MacDougall, The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2006, p. 21. ↩
- Mary Anne Doane, “The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies vol. 14 no. 3, 2003, pp. 89-111, here p. 94. ↩
- Gaine, p. 296. ↩
- Gaine, p. 303. ↩
- Brigitta Wagner, “The Art of Citational Cinema: An Interview with Alex Ross Perry,” Senses of Cinema 74, March 2015. ↩
- Doane, p. 94. ↩
- Rachel Handler, “The Story Behind Every Track on Fetch the Bolt Cutters,” Vulture, 17 April 2020. ↩