Film criticism is, at times, a tightrope of a gig. At it’s most basic, I should be telling you whether or not a movie is worth watching — or at least enough about what the movie gets up to that you can make that judgment based on your own tastes. Which is why it’s always exciting and intimidating when a movie like The Perfection lands in my lap, because I honestly don’t know what to say. I can tell you what I think of it (mind-blowing, gut-wrenching, unexpected and disturbing and downright lovely), but I don’t know if I can recommend it to everyone. To explain the plot without delving into spoilers is to tell you practically nothing — and, worse, I fear there are specific triggers I ought to warn people about, but can’t give away. Even discussing the film’s influences could spoil the surprise. So I’m sitting here, shadowboxing my way through a review of a movie that I absolutely loved, punching down all the things I desperately want to talk about and trying to find the things I actually should say.
You know what? It might help to start with the trailer:
That actually gives a way a lot of the movie — but not in the way you might think. Still, I think this much should be safe to discuss. The film stars Allison Williams as a former star cellist named Charlotte, who had to leave her fancy conservatory, run by Steven Weber’s Anton, in order to take care of her sick mother. After nearly a decade, her mother has finally passed and Charlotte is left trying to slip back into the life she left behind. She reconnects with Anton and his wife Paloma (Alaina Huffman) in Shanghai, where they are scouting fresh talent for their school. And it’s there that she meets their current star pupil, Lizzie (Logan Browning), a young woman who seems to be living all the dreams Charlotte had to leave behind.
It would be fair to assume this was a tale of jealousy and revenge, but it isn’t. Or at least, not the jealousy part.
The trailer also hints at extreme body horror, or maybe even some sort of bug-contagion story. And it is that, for awhile (which was why my husband had to stop watching the film — bugs are his trigger). But that’s not really the sort of movie it is either. Eventually the bugs are traded in for mutilation, confinement, and other forms of violence (including sexual, which I will talk about further below — but please note that the sexual violence is more suggested than graphically depicted, though that doesn’t make it any less disturbing).
This movie is never quite the movie you think it is. Or, to put it another way: Every time you think you know what’s really going on, another curtain is pulled aside to show you how wrong you are. Heroes become villains, antagonists become allies — and it’s never just one twist that changes how you view a character, but several. Amidst all the narrative convolutions there is one central question being answered: What game is Charlotte playing?
And while the chemistry between Williams and Browning is electric, and ultimately what the whole enterprise hinges on, I gotta give a shout-out to Weber, who hasn’t had a role this juicy in years.
This is an erotic thriller. It’s a love story, too. It’s a story about shared trauma, abuse, catharsis, and paths to breaking free. It’s a story about zealotry. About saving yourself, and saving others. It’s a story about gaslighting. And yes, it is a story about revenge — but it is not a story about revenge for revenge’s sake. And that is the movie’s saving grace: even as it runs you through a gamut of tropes you think you know, it shifts the perspective and uses them to tell a story that you don’t see coming.
The Perfection, directed by Richard Shepard and co-written by Shepard and Eric C. Charmelo, is the spiritual successor to Park Chan-wook’s remarkable psychological thriller The Handmaiden. That movie is one of my all-time favorites, and while I’m still digesting this one, it certainly hit a lot of the same pleasure centers for me. It’s a film that is as much about form as it is content — the way the story is told as much as what story is told. But it’s not a movie for everyone, nor is it an easy movie to process. The very conceits that I love may be ones that others will argue vehemently against, and that’s OK. It’s divisive. And how you respond to it may be very personal. Speaking for myself, I can tell you that this is the only horror film that ever just emotionally shattered me. It’s hardly a tearjerker by any means, but damn if I didn’t sob. It just flat-out resonated with me… and wrecked me, in deeply satisfying way.
And here’s where I’m going to erect a big ol’ SPOILER WALL, because while I don’t want to ruin the ultimate revelation of the narrative, I also think it’s something that can be very triggering and could be a deciding factor for a lot of viewers. If you want to know the worst of the worst before you commit to seeing this movie, then keep reading. And if you’ve already made up your mind to see it, or not to see it, then you can stop reading now.
As I mentioned above, sexual violence is an element of this story, which may be as much inspired by the USA Gymnastics sex abuse scandal than it is The Handmaiden. It turns out that the conservatory Anton runs has a horrible way of inspiring “perfection” in its most elite pupils: if they mess up while playing in the special room (called “The Chapel,” natch), they are molested. The abuse is treated as necessary to achieving greatness, which is why for a very long time Charlotte and Lizzie seemingly don’t even register it as abuse at all.
Now, I’m as sick to death as anyone of rape as a plot device, and I’m always leery of it being used by male filmmakers in what is essentially a film told about the female perspective. That is a valid complaint, and something we should continue talking about as we analyze the media we consume. It’s also more than enough reason for those of you still on the fence to nope out of watching this one. I get it. But in this particular instance, I ultimately was not put off by the way it was handle for a few reasons. For one thing, the only female nudity in the film is during a consensual tryst between Charlotte and Lizzie. In the flashbacks to the abuse at the conservatory, it’s Anton who is shown fully-nude and menacing. And even then, the film never shows the details of the rapes or attacks. It’s not here to glory in the abuse, but to examine the very real repercussions of the brainwashing effect it had on Charlotte and Lizzie. So instead, the film lets us fill in the blanks. Once the secret is revealed, we can read the threat in Anton’s every movement without seeing that threat realized. For a horror film, it shows admirable restraint in this particular area — because it knows that the psychological damage is far more insidious than the physical pain of any such attack.
But why use rape at all? Again, in this instance, I believe it does serve a greater narrative purpose — but your mileage may differ. Rape isn’t just a motivation or a dark shadow in Charlotte’s backstory — it’s a shared trauma, a systemic abuse of power that binds two women together. And unlike many rape revenge tales, the “revenge” portion isn’t the point here. The emotional journey — the acceptance, the crippling PTSD, the decision to topple the entire system and save future victims from sharing their fate — is the real crux of the story.
Header Image Source: Netflix