Directed by: Richard Shepard
Starring: Allison Williams, Logan Browning, Steven Weber
Genre: Horror, Thriller, Drama, Crime
Release date: 24 May 2019
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Netflix’s sleazy and subversive new thriller is exactly the sort of film that gets lost in a glut of mediocrity these days. It needs to be discovered and championed.
The Perfection is a 2018 American horror thriller film directed by Richard Shepard, from a screenplay by Shepard, Nicole Snyder and Eric C. Charmelo. It stars Allison Williams, Logan Browning, and Steven Weber.
It had its world premiere at Fantastic Fest on September 20, 2018. It was released on May 24, 2019, by Netflix.
A deranged and disturbing new thriller for you to discover on Netflix
The Perfection: Movie Plot
Charlotte Willmore is a talented cellist who was forced to leave Bachoff, a prestigious music school, to care for her dying mother Ruth. In the present day, Ruth has just died and Charlotte makes contact with head of Bachoff and her teacher Anton. She travels to Shanghai where the school is in the middle of selecting a new student to join them and becomes aware that the girl who replaced her after she left the school, Lizzie, has achieved considerable success. Charlotte attends the selection process of the last three potential students and meets Lizzie, Anton, his wife Paloma and Bachoff teachers Theis and Geoffrey. Charlotte and Lizzie quickly become friends and their relationship turns sexual after a night of clubbing.
The next day, Lizzie wakes up with a hangover so takes some ibuprofen from Charlotte. Lizzie states her intention to go backpacking through rural China and invites Charlotte to accompany her. As they head to the bus, Lizzie starts to feel ill which worsens when they stop by at a street food stall. Once on the bus, Lizzie’s condition gets even worse, and she asks Charlotte for more ibuprofen. After falling asleep for a while, Lizzie wakes up, sicker than before, and urgently has to get off the bus to vomit and relieve herself. She gets back on the bus, but soon throws up maggots, scaring both Charlotte and herself. As Lizzie gets more and more panicked, she starts to upset the other bus riders, exclaiming that her brain is on fire and that she can feel something crawling under her skin. She suspects she has caught an illness that has been spreading through China recently. In her frenzy, Lizzie slams her head into the bus window. The bus driver kicks the pair out who are told to walk to a nearby village. Lizzie starts to throw up spiders before more bugs crawl out of her arm. At Charlotte’s insistence, Lizzie hacks off her infected right hand with a meat cleaver Charlotte brought.
It is then revealed that Charlotte drugged Lizzie with her mother’s hallucinogenic pills, tricking her into thinking that they were ibuprofen and orchestrated everything to lead to Lizzie cutting off her hand such as stealing the cleaver from the restaurant they visited. Three weeks later, Anton and Paloma guide the selected Chinese student, Zhang Li, around Bachoff and show her “The Chapel”, an acoustically-perfect room where only the best students like Lizzie and Charlotte are allowed to play. That night, Lizzie arrives at Bachoff. Anton and Paloma are shocked to see her hand has been cut off and equally alarmed by Lizzie’s accusations that Charlotte is responsible, claiming that she abandoned Lizzie after Lizzie severed her own hand. The next day, Lizzie is distraught to discover that Anton is kicking her out of Bachoff, stating that there is no reason for her to stay now that her hand is gone.
Charlotte, meanwhile, is back home in Minneapolis. Lizzie breaks in, tasers Charlotte, and kicks her until she overpowers her. She brings Charlotte to Anton at Bachoff, where Anton talks to Charlotte. Charlotte reveals that she came back because she saw a picture of Lizzie in a magazine, where her musical note tattoo was visible. Knowing what had to be done to acquire the tattoo, Charlotte came back to “save” Lizzie. In a flashback, it is revealed that students of Anton who get this tattoo are those who are chosen to play in the chapel, considered “the best”. Anton makes these star pupils perform in the chapel and then rapes them (making them “pay the price”) with the help of Geoffery and Theis if they make any slight mistake. Thus, the music note tattoo on both Charlotte and Lizzie signify they went through this experience; Charlotte planned the hand amputation in order for Lizzie to get far away from Bachoff, from Anton and his brainwashing. An enraged Anton drags Charlotte down to the Chapel. Lizzie and the staff at Bachoff watch Charlotte as Anton tells her he will let her go if she achieves “The Perfection”. However, if she so much as misses one note, he will rape Zhang Li. Zhang Li is then invited to watch the performance, unaware of the danger she is in. Charlotte begs Anton not to make Zhang Li “pay the price,” but he doesn’t answer. After the performance however, Zhang Li is sent to bed by Paloma and Anton states that Charlotte will be raped instead.
Once Anton leaves, the group activate a mechanism in the chair Charlotte is trapped in to prop up and bind her hands before moving in. Lizzie threatens to rape Charlotte with her hand stump before Geoffrey and Theis suddenly die. Lizzie and Charlotte kiss, and it is revealed that the pair were conspiring together all along. The movie rewinds to Lizzie’s attack on Charlotte in Minneapolis; Lizzie is angry at Charlotte for what she did in China, but comes to understand her actions: a flashback shows that after Lizzie cut her hand off, Charlotte convinced her that Anton will turn her away when she needs him most and that he doesn’t love her. In Minneapolis, Lizzie states that she knows Charlotte is right and the pair make a plan to bring the school down.
Back at the school, Anton comes back down to check on Charlotte and the rest. Paloma steps out, unsteady and urinating onto the floor, surprising Anton. Charlotte and Lizzie follow, stating that they drugged Paloma and then stabbed her to death, and they are going to attack Anton as well. Anton says he will get help, but the girls attack Anton with a meat cleaver and a knife. Anton briefly gains the upper hand, stabbing and mutilating Charlotte’s left arm before he is severely wounded and beaten by Lizzie. Some unspecified time later, a mutilated but still alive Anton, dressed in only his underwear, has his mouth and eyes sewn shut and is missing all of his limbs, listens as Charlotte and Lizzie perform for him in the chapel playing as one, both compensating for the other’s missing hand.
The Perfection, the new psychosexual thriller on Netflix, is a near-perfect masterpiece of modern exploitation cinema – like the wicked and wild lovechild of Whiplash and Velvet Buzzsaw.
It is going to be nearly impossible to talk about it without revealing its many twists and turns (or revealing that it has twists and turns), but to enjoy it fully, it would make sense for you to not read anything about the film at all.
There’s so much to unpack here, but director Richard Shepard constructs his story in such a silly, and often inelegant manner, that it is in direct contrast to the rather graceful backdrop against which the story is set. Like Dan Gilroy’s Velvet Buzzsaw and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, The Perfection is also about the hidden underbelly of the contemporary art world – its sinful soul sheathed beneath a blanket of beauty.
The film is a study in the duality of extremes. A pretty aesthetic is juxtaposed with grotesque violence, even prettier girls are stripped – gruesomely – of their beauty, and a classical music academy is shown as the playground of the perverted. Peel away the superficial layers – of people, institutions, mindsets – and you’ll find a pit of darkness, the film appears to say.
Shepard, who has had a long and rather eclectic career – he has made excellent dark comedies such as The Hunting Party and Dom Hemingway, and also a rather terrific documentary on the tragic life of actor John Cazale – reunites with Allison Williams, whom he directed in the HBO show Girls. Williams plays Charlotte, a prodigious cellist who was forced to discard her dreams and drop out of the prestigious academy run by a man named Anton, after her mother was taken seriously ill and required constant supervision. Several years later, having been absolved of the duty of taking care of a dying parent, Charlotte returns to Anton, seeking her place back.
To her surprise, she learns that she has been replaced. A younger, more talented girl named Lizzy has taken her place as the apple of Anton’s eye.
One of the biggest achievements of The Perfection is how well it manages to play into your expectations, and how effortlessly it subverts them. It’s all delicately balanced on tone – Shepard treads a microscopic line, one foot in a puddle of sleaze and the other slammed on the gas – building and building until he breaks out of the realm of Earthbound logic and into a movie stratosphere.
For its first act, however, it restricts itself to a rather subdued tone. Charlotte arrives in Shanghai to meet Anton, and we remain in China till around the halfway mark. This isn’t done in an obnoxious, pandering manner – Netflix isn’t even available in China – but in a thematically relevant, richly subtextual way.
China, you see, has a much-debated history of dabbling in the morally dubious waters of Eugenics – particularly in sports. The country is famous for its basketball, tennis and table tennis academies; and, unsurprisingly, for having produced some of the world’s foremost cellists. Even the ones who aren’t from there – Yo Yo Ma and Tina Guo, to name a couple – are of Chinese origin.
But I digress. The Perfection is precisely the sort of gem that gets lost in the interminable glut of mediocrity that dominates the conversation these days – especially online. We will watch what we are told to watch – either by corporations or by algorithms. I am neither. So, please watch The Perfection.