Charlotte Wilmore (Allison Williams) was once a renowed cellist, the star pupil at the Bachoff, a world famous conservatory in Boston, overseen by fastidious director Anton (Steven Weber) and his wife Paloma (Alaina Huffman). But Charlotte had to give it all up to her mom’s terminal illness, trading artistic triumph for filial duty and bouquets for bedpans. When her mother dies, she sits, blanked by grief while women talk about her and everything she gave up, just in earshot. She goes mad. She even tries to kill herself. We glimpse at her time in an institution, head shaved, electrodes applied to her temples. Like so many fairytales, this movie begins with the death of the heroine’s mother, the removal of a protective layer against the world. We only find out about the madness and the measures taken against it in judiciously-spliced flashbacks that make sequence and distance in time ambiguous. But we know from the beginning that something is wrong with Charlotte as she seeks out Anton and Paloma and meets Elizabeth Wells, or Lizzie (Logan Browning), the spectacular prodigy who took her place.
I’ve given you a little information in the set-up here, but nothing that’s really a spoiler. I’m not going to be able to hold them back beyond this point though. The Perfection is a film that rewards multiple viewings, but it also prizes a first viewing with minimal information. It’s worth it. I almost passed on it, despite all the enthusiastic word of mouth that reached me, because from the outset it looked like it was just going to be Joyce Carol Oates’ Beasts with cellos, and while that’s not completely incorrect, it is wrong in every way that matters. The Perfection is always what you think and never what you think, which is a neat trick for sure. You might want to watch it before you read so you can experience that yourself.
When Charlotte meets Lizzie, sparks fly, but not the revengey sparks one might expect. Poised, brilliant, and vivacious, Lizzie has both world enough and time, all the things Charlotte forfeited in the losing battle with her mom’s sickness. But this isn’t a predictable thriller where crazy, denied Charlotte designs to ruin Lizzie or steal back the fame that would have been hers. Nope. The brilliant artists bond instantly, and as Charlotte and Lizzie discuss Lizzie’s life, Charlotte betrays no regrets. Rather, she seems concerned for Lizzie, from the mature standpoint of someone who has suffered much more than the young superstar can yet grasp. And for Lizzie’s part, she idolized Charlotte before she succeeded her and, with irresistible daring, flirts with her more reticent, but not discouraging, childhood heroine. When Anton begs Lizzie to play an impromptu piece, Lizzie agrees, on the condition Charlotte join her in a duet. Now an amateur, horrified Charlotte demurs, but Lizzie convinces her by promising Charlotte, “You have been, and you will always be, the person who makes my heart skip a beat when you play.” That’s all it takes, and the performance becomes their love theme. Anton and Paloma fade into the background, as the film takes its first of several abrupt turns and genre makeovers. First up, body horror and paranoia on the new lovers’ doomed sightseeing trip on a dirty bus through rural China.
After this and Get Out, Allison Williams may well get typecast as the Unreliable White Woman. She does it so, so well. Over the course of the next two-thirds of the movie, we get to understand why the first part is subtitled “Mission.” Charlotte does have craziness on her mind when she reunites with the Bachoff crew and meets Lizzie; it’s just not the usual woman vs. woman dynamic we expect. When she sees a poster of Lizzie, scales electroshocked from her eyes about years of mental and sexual abuse at the Bachoff, she recognizes Lizzie’s eighth note tattoo and knows exactly what it means and how she got it, because as Anton’s former prize student, she wears it, too. How do you get to the acoustically-perfect theater-cum-sex dungeon in the basement? Practice, man, practice. Charlotte, like Lizzie, was bullied, tortured, and raped by her teachers at the Bachoff, and talking to Lizzie, Charlotte recognizes the sound of brainwashing. And so she devises a plan to free Lizzie from the hold Anton has over her, by making her useless to Anton. It is a fairly insane idea, and I bothers me a lot more to think it was improvised rather quickly by Charlotte, without even bringing up their shared experience and her new understanding of it in conversation. I mean, they even talk about their sexual experience in bed, particularly Charlotte’s lack of it. I feel like “Oh, and how many times did Anton, Geoffrey, and Theis gangrape you for missing a minor note in The Perfection?” could have come up some point after that. It reminds me a lot of V For Vendetta: Here, I tortured you to the point of death to destroy the illusions holding you hostage. Hate them, not me. I am just not super sanguine about Charlotte and Lizzie sharing a checking account one day if this is how Charlotte solves problems. But then, ultimately torturing and killing their tormentors at the Bachoff is Lizzie’s idea, so at least they are well matched. Maybe they’re more like Poppy Z. Brite’s serial killer lovers in Exquisite Corpse than V For Vendetta.
Williams’ and Brownings’ performances and chemistry hold this audacious thing on its course though its twists and turns through fake body horror, pseudo stalker slasher, and its final brash movement of revenge thriller and sorta slaughterporn. They’re simply perfect, and they better be, because they’re pretty much the whole film. Supporting characters flit in any out unremarkably, like set dressing, except for Steven Weber as Anton. Weber, a handsome-yet-plausible everyman since the 90s and my favorite Jack Torrence, is completely wrong for the part, but even that proves to be a weirdly good choice. Anton is the kind of affected aesthete that seems a muse panty-sniffer more than an artist in his own right, a real James Lipton-type*. And the premise of the film requires him to purse a strain of authoritarian menace, too, to keep it close and compelling. Again, Weber is my favorite Jack Torrence. But in this role his very Steven Weberness – the American accent that doesn’t strain towards the Mid-Atlantic daintiness of black-and-white films, the ghost of 8 seasons as a carefree sitcom lead, the lack of whatever it is that makes James Spader James Spader – jolts you like the hand of a time traveler tapping your shoulder. No, this isn’t the way it is supposed to be. You’re still not in the right world. But somehow, in this movie, that wrongness works. It’s a movie that likes to jolt you. Steven Weber not being quite believable pops you out of every scene, but Browning and Williams pull you right back in. I find the shock ending beautifully repellent – Charlotte and Lizzie, each missing a hand, playing a solo duet in Anton’s theater to Anton’s mutilated, helpless trunk – but without feeling invested in Charlotte and Lizzie’s journey together, I would probably find it a little glib and adolescent. As it is, it’s incredible, but it works.
For all its cleverness, The Perfection is poured over the bones of very conventional psychosexual thriller, the kind of films that used to play with all the good parts cut out on USA Up All Night. Shannon Tweed starred in many proto-The Perfections. But it is a film that glories in breaking those bones, and then it resets them at wrong angles. When those reset bones get moving again, it seems new and horrifying. But the bones are the bones. This is a movie about powerful people, particularly a powerful man, using personality, prestige, and privilege to prey upon the vulnerable, talented girls he plucks from powerless families, and you have seen it before. This is also a movie about trauma, and the way people can be bullied, brainwashed, and raped by their mentors, nominated for this abuse by their extraordinary talent, and made to be thankful for it. It is about the way women are taught to fetishize their own victimhood. That’s also an old story. Artists in particular mortify their flesh for the sake of an altered state that will exalt their work product – a destructive myth that has prevented far more art that it has shepherded. Where The Perfection is truly innovative is not the headfakes, meta-narrative techniques, and smart camera work, but the grotesque beauty of its ending, two brilliant women victorious, in love and insane, and making you watch.
* James Lipton-type as opposed to James Lipton, who is actually a pretty fun actor. His Warden Gentles is one of my favorite things in Arrested Development.
Angela will never listen to the song “Petals” the same way again.