A last-minute addition to the 2018 Fantastic Fest schedule, Richard Shepard’s The Perfection was definitely not a hard decision. Fitting right in with this year’s musical-minded genre fair – nestled comfortably among Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria scored by Thom Yorke, the simplistically synthy Halloween scored by John Carpenter, and the strange, danceworthy vision of Climax from Gasper Noe.
The Perfection is told in a series of segments, and though the characters are the same throughout, each segment will take you through a wholly unique experience. They’re almost like individual shorts, stitched together by the shared universe of our two leads. (Also, that in trying not to spoil any of the four segments, this review will be almost cruelly vague.)
“The Perfection is told in a series of segments, and though the characters are the same throughout, each segment will take you through a wholly unique experience.”
We first meet former cello prodigy Charlotte (Allison Williams) at the bedside of her ailing mother. Through the hushed whispers of busybody family members, we learn that she is nearing the end of a ten-year hiatus. Her mother inevitably passes, leaving Charlotte free to once again take up the Cello. She reaches out to her former mentor Anton (played by genre favorite Steven Weber), who invites her to a gala event in Shanghai. It is there that she becomes acquainted with another cello prodigy, Lizzie (played by the charismatic and scene-stealing Logan Browning).
Lizzie has been hitting the pavement cello style all-the while, and though a few years’ Charlotte’s junior – she is years ahead of her. The envy is palpable. Both ladies have a natural gift, but a fork in the road has divided them into the “what could have been’s” for the other. Here is where the film takes its first unexpected turn. Though Hollywood would typically pit these girls against one-another, we get a pleasant surprise in that – the girls take to one another. They’re kind. Flirty. When they finally come together at the end of the night to play a duet, their relationship crescendos, bonding them to one another in a way most films wouldn’t allow us.
We can’t get our hopes up though. This is a horror film. Things inevitably take a turn when Lizzie pulls Charlotte on an impromptu bus trip through rural China. Something sinister is at play. This duet may have been a solo act all along..
“This duet may have been a solo act all along..”
Like a musical piece bending backwards on itself to create a looping melody – The Perfection is broken into four main parts, hinging on the tune of the previous. Each smaller story revealing only enough to expand on the previous segment, but not enough to see the whole picture. It’s hard to explain this vaguely, but know that The Perfection will divert and detour your perceptions until the final act. Each segment has something to reveal, and each reveal is not what it seems to be.
Not quite body horror, not quite art film, The Perfection struggles to carve an identity throughout its interesting structure. Because the film doubles back on itself so much, its hard to pin down a theme or mood to follow. I’m all for films to be unpredictable, but one moment we’re in Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), and the next we’re in Lucky McKee’s May, 2002. First we’re surrounded by opulence and operas, the next bile and bus trips. Still unsure of where we’re headed, and who we’re with.
And while I enjoy both Allison Williams’ and Logan Browning’s performances as the two female leads of this film, their characters ultimately left me wanting. Both have secrets to reveal throughout, so leading up – all of the acting is careful, the dialogue stiff. Rigid even. But as an audience member watching the earlier segments, we aren’t supposed to feel those hard stops. Lizzie and Charlotte don’t come across as hiding something, or even being dubious. They come off as having not had enough time to rehearse or even going as far as seeming unfamiliar with the material.
Perfection is a film of revenge and retribution, and without divulging too much of the film – the justification for how the segments play out don’t feel real. The characters quickly take to dire acts, that even once justified by the characters themselves, don’t wholly make sense. That may have been the intention all along, but when you are playing with a message so relevant to a 2018 audience (particularly feminism, sexual abuse), you can’t have characters committing acts of violence willy nilly, on the verge of parody. The characters feel like they were wronged in 2018, hopped in a time machine back to when they were still filming Tales from the Crypt, and took over four consecutive episodes. (Don’t get me wrong, I love Tales from the Crypt, but re-watching some of the episodes takes considerable shrugging and eyerolls in today’s eyes.) In the end, everything feels like it’s teetering on the brink of fantasy, but hinging on the sell of true, grounded conflict.
“The characters quickly take to dire acts, that even once justified by the characters themselves, don’t wholly make sense.”
I’ll spoil one scene to get my point across. While Charlotte and Lizzie are on the bus, Lizzie takes ill. With a language barrier hindering them from communicating with other passengers and the bus driver, Charlotte takes to coaching Lizzie through the ordeal while the bus continues on through the wilderness. No town or hospital for miles. But the sickness takes over and Lizzie pukes yellow slime all over the windows. We’ll cut back and forth on the slime throughout the scene – but in half of them, there are maggots crawling around in the slime. The film will address this issue later on – but for several minutes, our only course of action as the audience is to question the special effects team. We’ll wonder why the editor would allow such egregious errors. Why the director would shoot it. See what I mean? Hard stops.
All in all, The Perfection is a creative take on the segmented storyline. I appreciate the tag-teaming of the two cellists, both Alison Williams and Logan Browning make a dream duet. Unfortunately there were too many kinks to keep this melody smooth throughout the story’s individual parts. Violent acts and character’s motivations felt unjustified, even after the film doubled back to explain its why’s and how’s. In the end, The Perfection left me wishing they’d picked just one of the four segments, and rolled with it the whole way through.
The Perfection celebrated its World Premiere at Fantastic Fest 2018. Check out all of Nightmare on Film Street’s Fantastic Fest coverage here!