Combining B-movie schlock and black comedy with refined yet raw storytelling, Richard Shepard’s The Perfection cleverly manages wild shifts in tone and tempo. Set in the pressure-filled world of classical music performance, it plays out in four titled movements that, among other influences, mash up Whiplash, Black Swan, Suspiria (circa 2018) and Cronenbergian venereal horrors.
The result is a fascinating mix of sophistication and nastiness. Though it occasionally missteps in its extremes – nearly getting too silly at times before introducing intense depravity as abbreviated plot device – and some techniques in its overflowing bag of tricks undercut the magic of some surprises, The Perfection is a warped ride worth taking.
Allison Williams shines as Charlotte, a former cello prodigy who left her prestigious music conservatory to care for her ailing mother. After a decade of caretaking and the eventual passing of her mother, Charlotte jets off to Shanghai to assist former mentor Anton (Steven Weber, sporting gloriously pretentious silk scarves and professorly glasses) and his successful pupil Lizzie (Logan Browning), also a cellist, in selecting the next musical wunderkind. The chain of events from there is best to discover on your own as all the craziness unfolds. And things certainly get crazy…and very, very icky.
Charlotte’s scars, both physical and emotional, are displayed prominently, but The Perfection takes its time in revealing just how deep they go and how they were caused. She seems to have ulterior motives, quickly fixating on Lizzie, who herself is immediately flirty. But things aren’t ever quite what they seem here. Is their mutual empathy/attraction genuine, or is each trying to play the other?
There are several points where it appears obvious where the movie is heading, but then a new movement begins and reveals fresh layers and threads to exploit within the brisk 90-minute runtime. Even if some of those threads are left unpulled, the damning of logic only adds to the wicked charms.
The two leads complement each other perfectly, each offering nuance that suggests something deeper than in-the-moment surface pain or pleasure. Channeling the smugness and compassion that made her stand out in Get Out, Williams earns derision and sympathy in equal measure. She even nails moments when Charlotte has to be a bad actress, giving the movie its most satisfying darkly comedic moments.
The immediate connection between the cellists feels genuine, perhaps from the shared experience of being pressured into greatness and losing self-agency, but Williams and Browning add complexity, which is at first subtle and then tremendously overt. Visual flourishes mimic the themes of duplicity and ugliness underneath a polished artifice, with Shepard and cinematographer Vanja Cernjul using a crisp, colorful sheen as a gloss before getting into the body-horror viscera. A multitude of split-diopter shots are employed effectively, particularly in a beautiful cello duet that gets a bit of a callback under very different circumstances later.
Not all of the stylistic touches work. There are a couple of extended sequences where the film literally “rewinds” itself to view previous events from a different perspective, which isn’t only goofy but also comes off as unnecessary hand-holding. The first instance features great performances that already suggest what’s going on, while the second would be better served with just a quick cut back to a specific meaningful moment. Another scene has the camera do a complete 360 around a character’s face when things have been turned upside down for them.
A few miscalculations aside, The Perfection is always intriguing and consistently shocking, the drama and sleaze anchored by fantastic performances that sell every demented twist and turn.