By Jordan Gerdes
The Perfection is billed as a dark thriller, akin to Black Swan, that plays on psychological horror through strenuous and strict musical talent. And if that was what this film was, it would have been just great. However, it is not. It is something much deeper, much darker, and much crazier. And since I can’t really unpack this without spoilers, here is your warning.
This is extremely spoiler filled. The movie deals with some content some might find triggering, so be warned, this article contains discussion of the theme of rape in film.
We are introduced to Charlotte (Allison Williams) as she watches her mother pass. Through a series of quick flashbacks, we start to gather a sense of trauma she has been through, though none of it is explained to us. With her mother dead, she is able to return to her former school, Bachoff, and her mentors, Anton and his wife Paloma, and pursue her career as a cellist again. She travels to Shanghai where the school is conducting interviews with new students, and here she meets Elizabeth (Logan Browning) who has replaced her as Anton’s star pupil. Charlotte and Lizzie play together, quickly becoming friends, and their relationship becomes sexual after a night out partying.
The next day, Lizzie is considerably hungover, and borrows some ibuprofen from Charlotte, and the two set off back packing through China. While waiting for the bus to set off, Lizzie becomes ill.The bus ride increases her illness, and throws up. Charlotte sees maggots in her bile, which sets Lizzie off and the other passengers as well. Afraid she has caught a recent sickness spreading through the country, they are thrown off the bus as Lizzie has become more erratic and violent, smashing her head into the bus window. On the roadside, Lizzie throws up a bunch of spiders, and bugs begin to break through her skin and crawl out of her arm. Charlotte insists that Lizzie cut off her infected right hand, which she does.
Here is the first large turn in the film, as it is revealed that Charlotte has orchestrated everything to this point, drugging Lizzie with hallucinogenic pills left from her mother’s treatment, and suggested the visions of bugs and spiders and maggots into Lizzie’s altered reality. Three weeks pass, and Anton and Paloma are showing the selected Chinese pupil around the Bachoff academy, specifically a room called The Chapel, an acoustically perfect room where only the best of the best students are allowed to play, such as Lizzie and Charlotte. Lizzie arrives, without a hand. She accuses Charlotte of drugging her and abandoning her in China over her jealousy. Anton and Paloma are both shocked by the accusations, but Anton asks her to leave Bachoff, as there is no reason for her to stay now that she has no hand.
Charlotte is then attacked and knocked unconscious by Lizzie in her own home. Charlotte is taken to Bachoff and presented to Anton by Lizzie, trying to find a reason to stay. Charlotte wakes on a couch, being looked after by Anton. Here is the second large turn of the film, as Charlotte reveals that what she did to Lizzie was in an effort to liberate her from Anton and Bachoff. She reveals that Anton makes the star pupils play in the chapel, and upon making the slightest mistake, they are raped by Anton, and teachers Geoffrey and Theis.
Both Lizzie and Charlotte have a small music note tattoo on their shoulders, signifying they both have gone through this torturous experience Anton refers to as “The Perfection.” It is upon seeing this note tattoo that Charlotte planned to cut Lizzie’s hand off to get her away from Anton and his brainwashing. Anton, furious, physically drags Charlotte down to The Chapel. Chained up, Charlotte looks out upon an audience of Lizzie, Anton, Paloma, Geoffrey and Theis. She is told that she is to play and if she does not play perfectly, Anton will rape Zhang Li, the new Chinese pupil. She is then invited in to watch the performance, having no idea of the danger present. After the performance, Zhang Li is sent to bed, and Anton tells Charlotte that is was just a sick joke and he intends to rape her instead. Anton leaves, telling them to come get him when “she stops fighting.”
The chains are pulled back, binding her arms, and propping the chair back, as Geoffrey and Theis move in. Lizzie demands to go first, unwrapping the bandages from where her hand was severed, revealing a stump. She instructs Geoffrey and Theis to open her legs, as Charlotte continues to scream. And here is the final major turn of the film, as Geoffrey and Theis suddenly drop dead from poisoned drinks. Charlotte and Lizzie embrace, and the flashback reveals what Charlotte said to Lizzie after cutting her hand off, that Anton will turn away from her when she needs him most, but Charlotte will be right there. The two kill Paloma, and attack Anton with a cleaver and knife, and he is soon beaten. Some time late, we see Charlotte and Lizzie performing in the chapel together, Charlotte with the bow, Lizzie using her one hand. Watching them is Anton, who has had every one of his limbs removed, his eyes and mouth sewn shut, in a chair, unable to move.
The three turns in the movie are three different motifs the film decides to follow. The first twist, we see Charlotte as this insane, jealousy driven, disgraced musician who has taken her rage out on the new pupil. It is, again, akin to movies like Black Swan, Whiplash, and Mother!, in which creative people are pushed to a breaking point, resulting in real life consequences.
The second turn introduces the rape-revenge motif, a very familiar, and often tired, plot line in horror movies. Films like I Spit On Your Grave, Last House On The Left really coined this genre of exploitation film, where movies like Revenge and even Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri have found new life in it in today’s cinema, in a much less exploitative way, which is how I believe this film has handled it as well.
The third and final turn of the film encompasses both of these previous turns, as both Charlotte and Lizzie are creative people pushed far past their limits, have been exploited and assaulted, and are finally given the power to exact their revenge and regain their power. The film’s third and final act goes full grind house film, putting as much blood as they could reason into the fight scenes. Anton regains the upper hand long enough to grab a knife, plunge it into Charlotte’s arm, and drag the blade from wrist to elbow. It was sufficiently gag worthy, making me cringe while watching it. Anton, dismembered and sewn up, felt like a scene out of Tusk or Human Centipede, just a gnarly little punch in the side right as the credits start. The three turns of this film function as a way to catch audiences off guard, leaving the viewer with a “what the fuck just happened” feeling after it ends, and man, does it ever fucking work.
I think the most admirable part of this movie is the way it chose to stay above the exploitative nature of the “rape-revenge” theme. There are a million movies about someone being assaulted and left for dead, only to come back and enact their revenge. It’s a simple and lazy trap to fall into, and truly misses the power of the motif, especially in the day and age we live in. The Perfection doesn’t cheapen the movie with an unnecessary depiction of rape, nor does it linger in the sexuality that often surrounds these scenes. Instead, it lets the audience draw the conclusion, and then show two women enact their vengeance, not for themselves, but to stop it from happening to anyone else. It’s two women taking on a system that is built around gaslighting these students and making them at fault for what is happening. Its tied to this lie of perfection and perfection requiring sacrifice. It expands the motif in many ways.
As far as I can tell, this is Richard Shepards’s first horror film feature, though he does have credits on Salem and The Twilight Zone, and my god, is it a fantastic one. It is shot beautifully, lots of light work and beautiful color. The rewind sequences feel creative and fresh, where it would have been easy to make them like a Guy Ritchie, fast talking heist sequence. The acting was brilliantly done, especially Allison Williams character. Honestly, I didn’t see a single bit of this movie coming. I remember watching the trailer, and thinking, oh cool, it’s like Black Swan, but more high stress horror, but this film is its own animal. It is dark. It is severely twisted. And it is nasty. I loved it. You should watch it. It is streaming on Netflix now.
When troubled musical prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) seeks out Elizabeth (Logan Browning), the new star pupil of her former school, the encounter sends both musicians down a sinister path with shocking consequences.