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The Perfection keeps #MeToo in mind and ends with a feminist exclamation point

The plot is almost impossible to describe without spoilers, but Black Swan and The Fly have both been invoked in reviews

By Julie Bloom/The New York Times News Service
  • Published 3.06.19, 4:21 PM
  • Updated 3.06.19, 4:21 PM
  • 6 mins read
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FEMINISTS UNITE: Logan Browning and Allison Williams in The Perfection, now streaming on Netflix (Still from the movie)

The gasps, shudders and yells at the screen could be heard straight from the Twitter scroll as one by one over the weekend viewers watched The Perfection, Netflix’s latest horror film to follow the success of Bird Box. It’s a movie designed for real-time online reaction and thus totally of the moment.

The Perfection stars Allison Williams (Girls, Get Out) and Logan Browning (Dear White People) as young cello prodigies who, after connecting at a concert in Shanghai, return to their cutthroat music academy to seek revenge on an abusive teacher. It’s gruesome, violent, erotic and totally bonkers. The plot is almost impossible to describe without spoilers, but Black Swan and The Fly have both been invoked in reviews.

Directed by Richard Shepard, an alum of Girls, and written by him, Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, the film had its premiere last fall at the horror-themed Fantastic Fest and was quickly bought by Netflix.

#MeToo was very much on the minds of its creators, and it ends with a feminist exclamation point. Yet when the movie opens, Browning said, they wanted viewers to think “this is some jealous rivalry. Then you’re immediately bombarded with the notion that it’s not. Each plot twist is a feminist statement.”

A FILM ABOUT SUPPORTING OTHER WOMEN

Stacey Reiss, one of the producers, said the movie was filmed right as Harvey Weinstein was being accused of sexual abuse (he has pleaded not guilty and trial is set for September), and the creative team was well aware of the issues raised by his case. Shepard noted that “genre movies are able to talk about subjects that are maybe a little too difficult to talk about in other ways,” and that the women in the movie “are able to correct wrongs that have happened in their lives, and that’s a powerful message.”

Reiss added, “This is a film about women supporting other women. It’s this idea that we’re all in this together.”

They chose classical music as a backdrop, Shepard said, because it’s a world that emphasises effortlessness and obsession, and yet there’s a heightened ugliness under the surface because of all the gruelling work it takes to perfect their art. Like the church, it is an insular community that holds sway over young people. The two characters can speak through their instruments, but are otherwise silent about their pasts and the costs of becoming stars.

Shepard drew on a number of influences, including The Keepers, a documentary series that involves sexual abuse at a Catholic school, as well as the work of the directors Park Chan-wook (particularly his erotic thriller The Handmaiden) and Brian De Palma.

The story is told through seemingly unconnected chapters that take you from a concert in Shanghai to a bus ride through rural China that goes haywire, complete with a butcher cleaver and flesh-eating vermin, back to suburban Minneapolis and the music academy where the women each began — and where they eventually confront their teacher, played by Steven Weber. In the process, you figure out the horrors that were inflicted upon them in their quests to become artistes.

For Williams, part of the appeal of working in horror is that women get a lot of opportunities to show their range and complexity. “One of the greatest gestures of love a filmmaker can give to a female character is just attention and time,” she said, along with “nuance, where women are not always one way or another.”

In her view, her cellist in The Perfection somewhat resembled her racist girlfriend in Get Out because neither character is rendered to the audience in a complete way until the end of the movie. “Not knowing who these people are is part of the plot,” she said. When she first read The Perfection, she said, “I couldn’t get a handle on this person, because the movie doesn’t want you to. The movie wants you to resist the sense that you know this trope of a character, and it’s constantly upending your assumptions. And that’s how people are. They traffic in different personalities or emphasise different sides of themselves to survive.”

The movie shows a lot of violence, but Shepard said steps were taken to make sure everyone felt comfortable, a sign of how sets are adjusting in the wake of #MeToo. Shepard said he understood that “as a 54-year-old white male, I have a specific point of view. But that’s not the world we live in.” He added, “We had very strong women on set, with very strong opinions about things, and they helped inform how we told the story.”

Williams said she and Browning were both involved in the script and brought into the editing room, where they had a say and also were given final cut on a sex scene.

For Browning, it also meant making sure there were women of colour who helped her prepare for her role and helped teach her the cello, which both she and Williams learned to play. She also worked with Shepard to adjust the script to give her character more autonomy. “With me as a black woman,” she said, “we wanted to make sure the story wasn’t a white-saviour film, and so scenes were inserted and changed.”

That extends to the very end, which, without giving the whole thing away, has caused the strongest reaction. The women get their revenge and the catharsis comes with a #MeToo message: The man who tortured them is forced to listen. It’s one shot that says everything.

Part of the reason it has hit a nerve, Reiss speculated, is because “it mirrors what’s happening right now. A lot of men have been forced to take a seat and watch, and women are having their moment.”

Reiss added, “A lot of women who came to screenings came out with that reaction of ‘Wow.’ There are a lot of days where I feel like I want to scream, and this allows you to scream.”

The best bit about The Perfection is that one cannot box it in — it combines body horror with elements of a psychological thriller, all the while making a strong statement about mental health and #MeToo.
The best bit about The Perfection is that one cannot box it in — it combines body horror with elements of a psychological thriller, all the while making a strong statement about mental health and #MeToo. (Still from the movie)

REVIEW

It’s a film that does nothing in half measures. And that’s the reaction it will elicit from you — you will either love it or loathe it, but you can’t help but be intrigued by it. The Perfection, currently streaming on Netflix, is perhaps the most mind-bending film you would have watched in a long time. Horror meets gore meets twisted feminism in this campy revenge flick directed by Richard Shepard that opened to immense chatter at the Fantastic Fest in the US last year.

The best bit about The Perfection is that one cannot box it in — it combines body horror with elements of a psychological thriller, all the while making a strong statement about mental health and #MeToo. It explores the murky underbelly of the performing arts industry and in tone is perhaps closest to Darren Aronofsky’s dark thriller Black Swan.

Like that 2010 Oscar winner that explored the bitter rivalry and subsequently twisted friendship between two ballerinas, The Perfection focuses on the ambiguous equation between two supremely gifted cellists, both living life under vastly different circumstances. Charlotte (Allison Williams) was one of the most promising students in her growing-up years at Bachoff, a prestigious music school in Boston. However, she had to leave the academy to tend to her terminally ill mother. Once her mother dies, Charlotte, now in her 20s, wants to make a comeback to her craft, but it’s Lizzie (Logan Browning), also an alumnus of Bachoff, who is now considered the best cellist in the world. The first meeting between the two takes place in Shanghai where they both end up judging a competition to induct the next promising talent into Bachoff and before the night ends, sparks fly between the two and they end up in bed together.

The next morning, Charlotte agrees to accompany Lizzie on her two-week backpacking vacation through rural China, but what starts off as a fun adventure quickly becomes a ghastly ride with Lizzie falling very ill. That results in one of the most gut-wrenching scenes one would have watched in modern horror and then on, The Perfection embarks on a bizarre, brazen and gradually unhinged ride that is ridiculous, grotesque, funny and unpredictable in turns.

The Perfection is modern horror at its best (or is it worst?) Clocking 90 minutes, the film moves at a breakneck speed and there will be moments that will shock as well as stupefy. The plot twists unfold by the minute and you never know where the film is going to take you next. There’s sexual violence and mindless carnage, but the film also has an empowering message that’s delivered through horror, tragedy and gore. And by gore we mean limbs being hacked off, eyes being gouged out and violence so dark and psychotic that some viewers are apparently getting sick during and post the film. Yes, watch it only if you can stomach it.

The film is a bumpy ride and not all of it works — some parts are downright ridiculous — but The Perfection manages to be always intriguing and consistently shocking. The final scene — we will not spoil it for you — is a big payoff, and that comes courtesy Allison (who was equally effective as the closet psycho hiding behind her white privilege in the chilling Get Out) and Logan who make the film worth a watch even at its most bizarre. And when they mouth lines like, “Now we’re going to f***ing chop your balls off and sell them as trinkets,” you know these girls mean some really serious business.

Priyanka Roy