I’m really thankful that The Perfection is being released on Netflix, mostly because I had to pause it approximately eight times to take a breather, regroup, and frantically Slack colleagues about my plight. Had I seen it in a theater, I think I may have passed out.
There are bugs in this film, you see. Lots and lots and lots of bugs. Bugs in places where there should never be bugs. Bugs of all shapes, sizes and colors — not quite what you’d expect from a psychological horror thriller about classical cellists striving for the perfect note. And yet, nothing about The Perfection is what you’d expect, which is what makes watching it such a weirdly thrilling experience.
The movie opens with a death. An older woman’s face, eyes frozen wide open in rigor mortis, is the first thing we see. A decade after Charlotte Walker (Allison Williams) left a prestigious music academy on the cusp of success in order to care for her ailing mother, she’s now free to pursue a life of her own. But what does that look like? She’s no longer a professional musician; but she also can’t see herself being anything else. With that in mind, she reconnects with her mentor Antor (Steven Weber), who invites her to Shanghai to judge a special contest to select the new crop of students for his school. There, she meets Lizzie (Dear White People’s Logan Browning), Anton’s star pupil, who’s enjoying the very life Charlotte could have had were it not for her mother’s sudden illness.
And if this is all sounding a little Black Swan, let me stop you there: The Perfection smartly sets us up to see these two as rivals, only to subvert expectations when they start fangirling over each other. So, though the quest for perfection in music is peak Aronofsky, the relationship between these two women is a lot more nuanced.
The thing about this movie is that to explain — or even summarize — the plot would be to completely ruin it. Events change course several times as the stakes ramp up to such a degree that it’s impossible to predict what the characters might do next. In that sense, it feels more akin to A Simple Favor, Paul Feig’s stylish, self-aware Gone Girl-esque thriller, which left me slack-jawed and dizzy from all the left-field twists.
Director Richard Shepard, who co-wrote the script with Eric C. Charlmelo and Nicole Snyder, is known for dark comedies like Matador and Dom Hemingway, and has worked on women-centric shows like HBO’s Girls (co-starring Williams) and STARZ’s Sweetbitter. There are elements of each at work in this film, which addresses women’s trauma but pushes its consequences to their most absurd, bloodiest conclusions. Divided into four chapters, the film sometimes feels like a series of American Horror Story-style vignettes bound by feature form. Each has its own aesthetic, sub-plot and vibe — it’s only at the end that you realize how they mesh together.
Williams and Browning both give completely unhinged — yet unique — performances. In some ways, the former’s role feels like an extension of her character from Get Out: there’s something sinister lurking underneath that blank, placidly polite facade, but we, like Lizzie, don’t figure it out until it’s too late. It’s exciting to see her flex her range. As for Browning, well, let’s just say that she goes so hard in one scene on a bus in the middle of the Chinese countryside that I’ll probably have nightmares forever, so thank you for that. Their interplay is compelling to watch, but also unnerving. Shepard is clearly aware of the complicated implications of having a white woman covet a Black woman’s success, and leads his stars into various situations that slowly escalate the level of discomfort.
Amid the batshit plot swerves, one always gets the sense that events are playing towards a known conclusion — even if we don’t know what it is. That feeling of carefully contained chaos is what saves the film from devolving into a silly spiral of nonsense. And that’s a good thing because, when stripped of its maniacal trappings, The Perfection is dealing in very real emotions. It’s an acknowledgment of the symphony of pain inflicted by men on the women around them in the quest for perfection, and a celebration of emancipation.
But again, let me reiterate: bugs! Lots of bugs!