If Netflix is the new video store, then The Perfection is the new direct-to-video thriller. A lurid little movie that tracks horror mud onto the wall-to-wall carpeting of ’90s erotic thrillers through the sheer force of its creative sadism, it would play extremely well on the bottom half of a bill headlined by Korean auteurs Park Chan-wook or Kim Ji-woon. Like those directors’ films, The Perfection takes deep, fetishistic satisfaction in pushing the envelope, then pushing it some more, building in seductive fits and shocking starts to an orgiastic frenzy of cinematic excess. Is it a progressive movie? Not especially, but that’s okay as long as you know what you’re getting into. Will it be fun to watch? For some people, absolutely.
Allison Williams, still playing with the uptight WASP image she established over six seasons on HBO’s Girls, stars as Charlotte, a onetime cello prodigy whose career ground to a halt when she was forced to return home to Minnesota from her elite New England music academy to care for her ailing mother. Now her mother is dead, and Charlotte is making tentative steps toward reconnecting with her former mentor, Anton (Steven Weber). But Anton now has a new favorite student, Lizzie (Logan Browning), the rare classical musician who’s famous enough to get endorsement deals—in this case, the beer-ad billboard that confronts Charlotte when she arrives in Shanghai to judge a music competition sponsored by her old school, The Backoff Academy. Within hours of meeting Charlotte, Lizzie is aggressively hitting on her, and it seems pretty obvious that we’re being set up for a torrid, male-gaze-courting, Cinemax-style lesbian affair. And we are, for a little while.
From that first twist on, The Perfection takes off running, continually shifting the narrative to keep the audience guessing until the very end. Those who are especially sensitive to spoilers are hereby advised to skip to the next paragraph, but those concerned about triggers should know that The Perfection uses sexual assault as a plot device, and not in an especially nuanced or sensitive way either. The aesthetics around the theme are refined to a haute couture point, incorporating imagery and dialogue that blend the occult cruelty of Martyrs and the Hellraiser series with the baroque torture porn of Park’s chapter in the 2004 anthology film Three... Extremes. But whether the ominous threat of sexual violence that hangs over the film is provocative and political or merely traumatic will depend on your personal tolerance for such fare.
That being said, director Richard Shepard, who also co-wrote the film with Ringer creators Nicole Snyder and Eric C. Charmelo, doesn’t appear to be trading in shock value for its own sake with The Perfection. It’s all part of a unified aesthetic whole, a calculated blend of high and low culture whose inherent camp value recalls deliciously transgressive thrillers like Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct and Body Double-era Brian De Palma, but with a more contemporary, Asian extreme horror-inspired twist. With such a specific vision behind the film, then, it’s disappointing how flat and cheap the film’s digital cinematography and CGI effects look—though the practical gore effects are horrifying, which is to say very good. Committed performances from Williams and Browning, both of whom show great range in the film, further uplift The Perfection, but in the end, one must call it what it is: a shamelessly trashy B-movie in elevated horror drag. Proceed accordingly.