In Netflix-acquired curio The Perfection, confusion reigns. As viewers, we’re wrongfooted both by the film’s twisting plot and its genre, oscillating between body horror, psychological thriller and a drama about mental health. There’s a rare unpredictability that initially proves alluring, at least until that confusion starts to feel less intentional.
The film’s indefinability is admirable while also frustrating, the plot leaping around in a rather graceless fashion, spinning back, forth and sideways with ambition but not always success. As a child, Charlotte (Allison Williams of Girls) was a master cellist but when her mother fell ill, she was forced to leave a prestigious academy to take care of her. Years later, when her mother dies, she returns to the scene, painfully aware of the price she has paid for her absence. Her position in the academy, and more broadly in the world of classical music, has been taken over by star pupil Lizzie (Logan Browning of Dear White People) and the two meet during a concert in Shanghai, a crackling combination of jealousy and sexual tension in the air.
To go into much more detail about what happens to the pair would be doing a disservice to the script’s many left-turns, some of which are easier to predict than others. A crude comparison would be Black Swan, another film about a dangerous relationship between two competitive young women trying to succeed within a specific and ruthless artistic world. But while that film boasted Darren Aronofsky’s outrageous yet precise aesthetic, The Perfection has Dom Hemingway director Richard Shepard at the helm, a less assured film-maker who can’t quite match the script’s stabs at wild perversity. It feels flat when it should be leaping off the screen, looking and sounding like a low-budget TV movie complete with uninspired music cues and a stifling lack of atmosphere.
That aforementioned sense of confusion permeates throughout, with Shepard shifting his film from schlocky B-movie to earnest issues drama with unease. When things do settle down, in random spurts, there are some effective sequences, such as a nightmarish bus journey that culminates in an effectively manic act of extreme violence. The film works best when we’re in the dark over what’s really at play, and as it careens to an end, some shocking gore isn’t quite enough to distract from an increasingly far-fetched plot, with one particular character’s devious plan making precious little sense upon reveal. There’s also a certain smugness over some of the script’s bigger reversals, with Shepard rewinding the film on two occasions to explain events in what might be seen as an audacious stylistic flourish on paper but on screen plays out with far less panache.
Since the end of Girls, Hollywood hasn’t quite figured out how to place Williams, who’s only really registered as the perfectly cast epitome of devilish white privilege in Get Out. Sticking to the same genre, she’s patchier here, more convincing in the quieter, sinister moments than she is when she has to play it big. There’s decent chemistry between her and Browning, even if their leap from arch-rivals to sexual partners feels rushed while as their mentor, Steven Weber is a bit hammy, adding further bum notes to a film that’s already struggling to feel symphonic.
Due to its unconventional nature, there does remain an intrigue over exactly where it will go next and as a result, it’s hard to feel bored, with the upside of throwing so much at the wall being that inevitably, some of it does stick. When the film commits to its midnight movie madness, it develops a personality above the often pedestrian visuals Shepard offers up but one wonders what a different, more daring director might have done with this material.
Cruelly titled, The Perfection is far from it.
The Perfection is available on Netflix on 24 May