The Perfection (2018)

It’s Time to Face the Music

Exploring territory previously mapped by the likes of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (a much better film) and Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw (a marginally worse one), director Richard Shepard’s The Perfection is the latest high-ish profile genre offering to hit Netflix. Principally set at an elite music conservatory in Shanghai, it’s another rumination on the interplay between artistic talent, obsession, sexuality, and selfhood, although a much pulpier and more lurid example than either of the aforementioned.

It doesn’t start out that way, though — initially, The Perfection comes across as a much classier affair, charting the rivalry/ friendship/ romance between cello prodigies Charlotte (Allison Williams), who left the academy at some point before the opening credits to care for her dying mother, and Lizzie (Logan Browning), who has risen to prominence in her absence, becoming the apple of school headmaster Anton’s (Steven Weber) eye. The movie having been billed as some kind of thriller/ horror exercise, we’re primed for something, but the slow set up and the luxurious production design of the high-class setting lull us into thinking we’re in for a slow build to whatever pay off is in store for us. And then, before you know it, someone’s vomiting up maggots, a hand is being lopped off with a meat cleaver, and you realize that the rug has been well and truly yanked from beneath us — The Perfection is wild.

Drowning out the noise

How wild would be hard to say without giving the game away, and the film is predicated on a series of sudden reversals that alter our understanding of what has gone before, and what is still going on. It’s not mind-blowing stuff — you’re not getting full on Fight Club (1999)/ The Sixth Sense (1999) revelations here — but there’s a certain Hitchcock-lite structure and tone in play it’d be a shame to spoil.

What is worth noting is that The Perfection is far more violent and horrific than you might expect, and some of that is sexual violence. There’s a sleazy, queasy, Euro-trash sensibility in play, which will please exploitation connoisseurs but won’t be suitable for every palate. Rape is a plot point and a character drive, and if you’re not at least braced for that, this one may not be for you.

Having said that, there’s a weird kind of playfulness to the way the film approaches its more transgressive material, and although it deals with bodily mutilation and sexual assault in fairly brazen and deliberately provocative ways, there are themes of feminine empowerment at work, and a critique of institutional abuse, it’s just dressed up in body horror tropes and a certain trashy aesthetic; props to the director, who also co-wrote the script, for going there, at least, even if it’s not necessarily a desirable destination.

Just Cellin’

Still, filmmaker Shepard is committed to his premise and his tonal choices, and so is the cast. There’s no reticence to the performances, no hint that anyone involved thinks they’re slumming it (you can always tell when someone thinks they’re above the material they’re performing). Steven Weber, more famous for his sitcom work — i.e., Wings (1990-97) and Get Shorty (2017) — and his appearance in the other version of The Shining (1997) than anything else he’s done, is particularly impressive here in a key supporting role, while Allison Williams, Get Out (2017), and Logan Browning, Dear White People (2017), never flinch from the horrors they’re required to enact and endure.

The Perfection is a curio more than anything else, and it’s certainly destined to divide audiences. Its themes have been better explored elsewhere, but there’s a brazen, genre-savvy charm to its approach and a couple of truly shocking moments that put it a length or two ahead of the exploitation pack.

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Travis Johnson

The Perfection is currently streaming on Netflix