In this age of non-stop information one of the most satisfying experiences as a movie fan is coming across something you weren’t anticipating. The internet’s never-ended hunger for content has made it so that we basically learn everything we can about a movie months before it comes out, constantly reminded that it’s coming, and what to expect. But, every now and then, something can kind of slip under the radar, and surprise you. In general I don’t read many reviews coming from festivals, since the movies featured there aren’t going to be able to be seen by the likes of me for many months, if not years. So, occasionally a movie will hit a festival pretty hard, make a splash, and then go quiet for a while until it inevitably reaches audiences. And, if you stay away from that kind of news, these smaller movies can kind of jump out at you, giving you and insane experience that you had no preparation for. Such is the case with the Perfection, a movie I may have heard about around last year’s Fantastic Fest when it premiered, but which largely came out of nowhere with no real fanfare for me. All I knew was that it was a crazy new movie from Richard Shepard, a director who I have a strange amount of affection for largely because of how much I enjoy his early film the Matador, and that it was the kind of movie that worked best when viewed with little to no knowledge of what it even was. I had heard that it was a little sleazy, a little scary, and just generally a strange experience. And, after being dropped down into its strange world on a sunny Sunday morning, I was instantly fascinated by this strange little movie.
The Perfection begins with a woman named Charlotte Willmore arriving in Shanghai in order to reconnect with a former teacher of hers, Anton Bachoff. Charlotte used to be a cello prodigy, studying under Anton at his families prestigious music academy, before having to leave to take care of her sick mother. But, her mother has died, and Charlotte has arrived in Shanghai at the same time that Anton is on the hunt for a new prodigy, while showing off his latest star pupil, Lizzie. Charlotte and Lizzie quickly hit it off, two people who really recognize themselves in each other, and after a very intimate cello duet the two decide to go out together that night, having a debaucherous night that ends with them sleeping together. And, seeing an almost immediate connection, Lizzie invites Charlotte to join her on a two week trip through rural China. Charlotte agrees, and the two get ready to leave the city, despite Lizzie starting to feel incredibly sick. Which, is a concern, since there’s apparently some devastating disease striking near the southern border of China. And, while on a bus in the middle of nowhere, Lizzie begins throwing up on the bus, and appears to be vomiting swarms of maggots. Lizzie and Charlotte are then kicked off of their bus, while Lizzie continues to fall apart, vomiting more insects, while seeing a whole swarm of bugs under the skin in her hand. Luckily, Charlotte has been carrying a meat-cleaver, and offers it to Lizzie so she can cut her hand off and save herself from the swarm.
Now, at this point, it seems like the movie has taken a strange turn. But, it turns out that it’s even stranger. Because none of this is happening the way we’ve seen it. Lizzie isn’t sick, and isn’t spawning insects. She’s having terrible hallucinations brought on by pills that Charlotte has been slipping her all day. Charlotte has orchestrated all of this, and leaves Lizzie alone, missing a hand, in the middle of rural China. When Lizzie finally makes it back to America, she deduces that Charlotte did it to her because she was jealous that Lizzie became Anton’s pupil, and works to begin her life again. But, because she’s no longer of worth to Anton, he kicks her out of the academy, setting her adrift. So, Lizzie tracks Charlotte down, and ends up kidnapping her and bringing her to Anton’s academy. Which is when we really learn what’s going on. Apparently Anton’s method for creating musical prodigy’s involves a lot of abuse, both mental and sexual, and Charlotte actually quit the academy to escape the abuse. She cut Lizzie’s hand off in order to free her from Anton’s control and abuse. And, working together, they’ve infiltrated Anton’s academy. They kill the rest of the small staff, before mutilating Anton, and forcing him to listen to them expertly play the cello one last time, together to compensate for their injuries.
As I mentioned earlier, I put this movie on while sitting around on a Sunday morning, not exactly sure what to expect from it. And, let me tell you, it wakes you the hell up. It’s a shocking, gruesome, dark, and captivating film which keeps you guessing the entire time. I’ve seen some criticism lobbed at it, primarily due to its rather exploitative nature, and whether this sort of revenge story, especially one that deals with sexual assault, really works. And, I’m really not sure about that. It’s fairly tone deaf at times, and it certainly raises the question of how rape is used in movies. It’s the type of question that I’m not sure that I, a privileged guy, is really capable of answering. I can give my opinion on the cathartic nature of exploitative revenge stories, but it’s not really my story, and it doesn’t feel right to weigh in on that. What I can say is that this is a really tense and interesting movie that is incredibly watchable for being so ugly and at times bleak. That certainly doesn’t make it a good movie, but it’s interesting. It’s really well shot, full of gorgeous set-design and wonderfully claustrophobic cinematography that just tosses you into the terrifying state of being trapped with an abuser. And the acting is pretty stellar from everyone, but especially Allison Williams and Logan Browning as Charlotte and Lizzie. This film requires a lot from both of them, as the movie vacillated between tones, and they both knock it out of the park, delivering a pair of captivating performances that help anchor you in the madness of the plot.
Because this is a film that really feel like it rapidly becomes something new ever fifteen minutes or so. I had no idea what the premise of this movie was, and as I watched it I found myself struggling to figure out where it was going. Every few minutes something insane would happen that ends up making sense once we get the full picture, but which at the time just re-contextualized everything, and sends us off in a completely unexpected direction. And, I feel like that type of twisty narrative can often be rather off-putting. If the script is doing everything it can to rapidly swerve into a different premise, it’s easy for an audience-member to be bucked off the movie, and get lost. But, shockingly, this movie manages to make several buck-wild swerves, and keep you fully invested with what’s going on. Things get absurd, and it would have been so simple for them to make a movie that leaves an audience member cold, unable to connected after one too many twist, but there’s just something about this movie that I can’t put my finger on, which just keeps you glued to this weird trip. By the end of the movie, everything adds up. I’m loathe to say that it “makes sense,” but I completely understand everything that happened, and how it all fit together, while at the time I was just in a perpetual state of confusion, trying to figure out how all of these disparate elements would gel together. And, that’s a seriously impressive feat.
The Perfection was written by Richard Shepard, Nicole Snyder, and Eric C Charmelo, directed by Richard Shepard, and released by Netflix, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk