On the grand scale of fucked up films from Oldboy through to Audition right up to Saló, or 120 Days of Sodom Richard Shepard’s Netflix nightmare The Perfection sits comfortably between the latter two of the above three. For a long time the masters of the macabrely messed up have been South Korean. Park Chan-Wook’s The Handmaiden or Bong Joon-ho’s Mother as well as Na Hong-jin’s The Wailing were all likely touchstones for Shepard. Although his influences both in terms of style and story are clear Shepard delivers a unique vision pulled from a festering, gangrenous womb.
Charlotte Willmore (Alison Williams – Get Out, Girls) is a talented cellist forced to abandon her lessons after her mother falls ill. A decade later after her mother’s death Charlotte reconnects with her teacher Anton (Steven Weber) from the prestigious Boston-based Bachoff Academy. Attending an event in Shanghai Charlotte meets fellow prodigy Lizzie (Logan Browning – Dear White People) and they bond over their tough experiences at Bachoff. These experiences slowly reveal themselves as more and more sinister, resulting in deeply buried traumas for both women.
If the above sounds vague that’s because it’s meant to be. The Perfection twists and turns more times than a rat caught in a trap. Each twisted revelation is more horrifying than the last. The Perfection sits comfortably and confidently between Audition and Saló because like those two films it is weapons grade fucked up. But all of the vomiting, defecation and mutilation means nothing without the strong performances behind the film’s most grotesque moments.
Set out into four symphonic movements – ‘Mission’, ‘Detour’, ‘Home’ and ‘Duet’ – The Perfection traces its characters from empty shells that break and shatter to two women that are built back up into mentally whole people. Charlotte’s backstory is told mostly through nightmarish jumping edits and brief lapses into hazy daydreams of escape. Lizzie doesn’t need these spasm-like flashbacks as a breakdown in the second act reveals her true mental state and mirrors Charlotte’s own.
Instances such as these are preceded by moments of enhanced slowness. Williams moves delicately as Charlotte – as if she’s spent her whole life walking on eggshells. Browning’s Lizzie moves just as slowly as the other characters only her purpose of movement is false confidence in disguise. This languid approach is not laziness and the film’s strict but welcome 90 minute runtime doesn’t let any scene run on longer than it has to. This initial slowness occasionally snaps like a missed note in a symphony or a broken string at a concert. These twitches and jerks are quick reminders that the all-too brief and convincingly sweet romance between Lizzie and Charlotte must plumb the depths of hell before it can see brightness again.
Though much of the film feels like its grounded in the real world other moments are lurid and garish like an overripe nightmare. Cinematographer Vanja Cernjul takes his cues from the flat rural realism of Mother or The Wailing in the scenes set in China or Boston. For the dread-filled sequences set in the rustic, classical Bachoff Academy he evokes The Shining’s isolation and occasionally uses colours straight from the giallo playbook. Even when focusing on faces Cernjul’s camera lingers as Shepard’s direction from his own script encourages normal expressions to curdle and rot.
Throughout The Perfection outer beauty is contrasted with a dark, desiccated inner self. Eventually in its closing act the film reveals its villain and smart viewers will pick up on it early on but for much of its run-time The Perfection isn’t really about good versus evil. There are no heroes or villains only fucked up people. It’s a film about abuse. Self-abuse through binging, purging and cutting. Institutional abuse disguised as love and care. It’s a powerful and often sickening message but it gets its point across through small incisions and hammer blows. The Perfection might not be a perfect film. What is after all? But it’s pretty damn close.