Directed by Richard Shepard
Starring Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber
I’m coming late to the phenomenon that is The Perfection, whose unmitigated gore and twists-upon-twists have made it a social media lightning rod. The critics have been divided into two clear camps, one denouncing it as “misogynistic trash” and the other hailing it as an “empowering revenge fantasy.” I think both reactions read a lot more into The Perfection than it warrants; both extremes try to situate this admittedly twist-filled thriller/body horror opus in larger social movements like #MeToo, when really it should just be looked upon as 90 minutes of glossy nonsense and gleeful violence.
More on Netflix:
- Should we be outraged over ‘Long Shot’ casually saying PH is on the brink of civil war?
- Review: Netflix’s ‘Formula 1: Drive to Survive’ is a compelling portrait of ambition and the price of speed
- Review: Unicorn Store is a sparkly tale on adulting, but a little edge could have really sold it
- Review: Netflix’s ‘Always Be My Maybe’ is hilarious and a joy to watch
- ‘I’m an Oscar winner, what am I doing pruning a sad bonsai tree like a demented gardener?’
But first, a synopsis: The Perfection is divided into sections with labels like “1. Mission” or “6. Home,” stylistic flourishes that summon movements in classical music, because that is ostensibly the milieu of the characters. The movie opens with Allison Williams, the square-jawed actress from Girls whose wide, earnest eyes camouflage dark secrets, an ability she amply demonstrated in her supporting turn in Get Out. Here, she plays Charlotte Willmore, a troubled cello prodigy of the Bachoff Academy, an exclusive live-in facility for talented cellists run by Anton (Steven Weber) and his wife Paloma (Alaina Huffman). Charlotte was forced to cut short her promising run as prodigy to care for her stroke-addled mother and recover for an unspecified mental malady. Now, a decade later, Charlotte has reached out to her former mentors and discovered that another prized discovery has taken her place: Lizzie (Logan Browning), a striking beauty with almond eyes who wastes no time making her attraction to Charlotte known as soon as they are introduced at a mentee search in Shanghai which they are both judging.
This initial section tells you in no uncertain terms that this supposedly female-empowering revenge fantasy is directed by a man (Richard Shepard, who helmed episodes for Ugly Betty and Girls, also one among three credited writers for the script). Only a man would assume that two beautiful women would instantaneously breathe infidelity theories into each other’s ears within minutes of meeting each other, like dogs sniffing each other’s butts. And only a man would conflate the intensely focused task of cello-playing with a hot lesbian date, as Shepard does by intercutting the two leads playing a duet with their admirably committed club dancing and lovemaking later in the night.
It doesn’t help that critics have name-dropped Black Swan when describing the dynamic between Charlotte and Lizzie, because that only exposes the inadequacies of the writing in The Perfection. The push-and-pull of desire and rivalry between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis’ characters put the fragility of the mental state of Portman’s aspiring prima ballerina Nina into stark relief. Black Swan also took pains to portray the excruciating physical demands that pursuing their art placed on the characters. Neither of these contextualizing touches are present in The Perfection. Charlotte’s illness, by plot necessity, is referred to only in the vaguest of terms, and neither of these two characters look like they’ve trained to play anything more rigorous than their Spotify playlists.
After that hot introduction, the movie enters its second “movement”: Lizzie invites Charlotte to rough it with her on an impromptu trek through rural China (never mind that Lizzie wears a cute plaid mini-skirt on their ride in a rickety bus), and soon what Lizzie first diagnosed as a hangover after a wild night soon devolves into roadside diarrhea and maggot-filled vomit. This hard-left turn into body horror is designed to make you feel as if you’ve entered another movie altogether, and at least illustrates Shepard’s firm grasp of the genre’s conventions.
If only he had an equally strong hold of the implications of his story. I can’t really tell you more about The Perfection without spoiling it, but in general terms there is an unlikely messiah-victim relationship involved, and an undergirding of decades-long rape. The Perfection contributes nothing new to the discussion of sexual assault perpetrated on women or the culture that breeds and perpetuates it. Even more dispiriting, there is nothing new to its deficiencies as a narrative. Again, there is the problematic reinforcement of the idea that victimization somehow makes women stronger—and worse, that women traumatizing each other are somehow noble. And again, there is the exploitation of rape survivors masquerading as false uplift.But the biggest hoot in The Perfection is its demand that we take Charlotte and Lizzie’s emotional beats seriously—that we take their actions as understandable—when nothing about their motivations make any sense. The script insists on its twists taking primacy above any considerations of narrative plausibility, so why make the effort to ground characters that exist solely to service the next “Gotcha!” moment? The Perfection is perfect trash, best ingested then excreted until the next faux-feminist exploitation flick comes along.
The Perfection is currently streaming on Netflix.
Photograph from IMDb