The Perfection (2018)

I saw someone set this movie up with the fact that it would be too upsetting for many viewers and it was given a blanket trigger warning because people need to be told that horror movies are actually upsetting — even when they pale in comparison to foreign horror or past frights. Read that as this ain’t no Cannibal Ferox. That said, there’s a fair amount of hype behind this one, with words like genius being bandied about.

I’m being candid. When I see a trigger warning before any critical analysis, my radar goes off. Horror itself demands that we walk into a film with no real preparation, ready to be frightened and perhaps shocked. Removing that makes it safe when the genre itself depends on an utter lack of safety. Yes, I’m being insensitive on some level. But really — when something has a hard R or you can tell from the trailer it’s going to get rough, you don’t need much more warning than that.

Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams, Get Out) was once a talented cellist with plenty of promise, but her mother’s illness — and her own mental illness — forced her to leave Bachoff, a school for gifted musicians. After a decade of being a caregiver, she comes back into the school’s orbit to travel to Shanghai and help the school pick a new student. There, she meets the woman who became her replacement, Lizzie (Logan Browning, who was in Bratz: The Movie). Their shared experiences lead to fast friendship and near-immediate romance.

After a night of lovemaking — where Charlotte claims to be a virgin — they decide to rough it and backpack throughout China, but Lizzie becomes violently ill, needing more and more ibuprofen and water before becoming convinced that she is full of insects. After they’re kicked off a bus, things go to their logical conclusion: Lizzie must chop off her hand if she’s to survive.

That’s when the film reveals its first twist: Charlotte was behind all of this, drugging her new lover with her dead mother’s pills and then created each moment that led to the mutilation.

At the center of all of this are the teachers of Bachoff. Steven Weber plays Anton, who at first comes off as a gentle man who has taught hard lessons to create some of the best musicians of this generation, along with the help of his wife Paloma and fellow teachers Theis and Geoffrey. At the center of his teachings is The Chapel, an acoustically ideal room where only the best students are given a special tattoo and allowed to play “The Perfection,” where any errors lead to horrible consequences.

Several times throughout The Perfection, there are rewinds to show us exactly what we’ve missed. I’d rather not reveal anything beyond that point, other than to say that the only upsetting thing I encountered was an arm slashing that was more based on the FX being quite effective than any worry for my mental safety. There’s also plenty of rape language and threats, but you can see that coming way before it occurs.

Richard Shepard directed this, formerly working with Williams on the HBO series Girls. He has plenty of TV work on his resume such as the pilot episode of Ugly Betty, as well as the movie The Matador.

My major issue with the film — take it from the white CIS male — is that the only way that Charlotte found to free Lizzie from a lifetime of abuse is to subject her to, well, more abuse. It feels like it’s exploiting the very audience that it’s trying to lift up. And I’m fine with exploitation — as any quick spin through my list of reviews will show you — but when a film comes from Miramax — a studio whose history negatively has intersected with the #MeToo movement, this all comes off as pretty carny and not in a fun Kroger Babb kind of way. This review from Vox hits it right on the head: this is a film that wishes to “regurgitate the superficial beats of #MeToo…without actually interrogating the oppressive cultural underpinnings that begat the movement in the first place.”

I guess maybe we expect too much from a Netflix film these days, maybe. Then again, at least it didn’t rip off Suspiria as much as I thought it was going to. I admire that the film went from a disease outbreak film to a personal revenge story in a major twist, but it didn’t shake my world as so many others have reported online. Then again, it seems the bar for worldshaking has been lowered to the ground floor in 2019.

You can watch The Perfection on Netflix.

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