On paper, The Perfection sounds like it should be exactly My Thing. It’s an over-the-top, weirdly horny, queer horror cheapie after all – the kind of heightened trash that clashes cheap made-for-VOD genre sensibilities with an exquisite fine art setting. That’s why it’s so disappointing that I ended up hating the film early & often, practically despising it more for being almost enjoyable yet barely watchable than I would have if it had no potential for greatness. Only outdone by Under the Silver Lake in terms of wasted potential, this is truly one of the biggest letdowns of the cinematic year so far, but I almost feel as if I’m letting myself down by failing to enjoy it. It’s like someone poisoned my catnip.
I can’t get too far into the premise of The Perfection here without ruining its intended payoffs for those who might still enjoy it. The what-the-fuck-is-happening quality of the plot is one of its strongest assets, as long as you aren’t as utterly appalled by its unearned reveals as I ultimately was. It’s at least safe to say that Allison Williams stars as a world-class cellist who returns to the music academy that trained her as a child before her years of seclusion in caring for her sick mother & intensive therapy. The music academy’s director (Steven Weber) is cautiously suspicious of her return but delighted for the opportunity to hear her play with his new star pupil (Logan Browning). Things escalate quickly as the two women’s exquisite musical collaboration transforms into a passionate sexual tryst and then, almost immediately, a complex series of betrayals, revenge, cruelty, and bloodshed. This first act set-up prompts you to question the history, intentions, and mental stability of all the players involved, and the perverse fun of its fallout is in those mysteries being fully, exploitatively exposed. To reveal any more in this review would be a crime I’m not willing to commit, except to say that all of The Perfection’s twisty roads only lead to disappointment.
There’s plenty for me to complain about here. As with the similarly promising-but-disappointing Always Shine, The Perfection immediately hinders itself with gimmicky early-aughts-horror editing tricks – practically begging for audiences’ patience with promises that “Things will get wacky & crazy later! Hold tight!” Besides the artificial jump scares generated purely through those edits, the film repeatedly rewinds scenes of intense violence & betrayal to over-explain what was really going on – when those rewound flashbacks only reveal was already blatant & obvious. Ideally, the film would have just let its trashy premise clash against its pristine High Art setting, as superior films like In Fabric, Grand Piano, and Argento’s Opera have before it. Instead, everything about it comes across as cheap except that it happens to have a cello soundtrack. The film is also never quite as surprising as it believes itself to be, telegraphing many of its shocking Twists long before it rewinds itself to explain what was already obvious to anyone who’s ever seen a movie before – undercutting its own value as a what-the-fuck-is-happening oddity at every turn. Nothing typifies this more than a last-minute wig reveal where a central character yanks off their own wig to expose a smaller, scragglier wig underneath . . . and not much else.
The truth is, through, that I would have readily forgiven all these minor sins against good taste if the third act’s morbid obsession with sexual assault hadn’t been such a letdown. This a violently gory, sensually horny, playfully twisty genre film that touches on Lovecraftian fears of breaking through reality to reach divine, horrible transcendence through beautiful music. I don’t understand, then, what it finds so alluring about the horror canon’smost repugnantly pedestrian go-to for creating tension & conflict for female characters. It’s as unearned as it is boring, frankly. You can’t promise your audience the endless horrors of the great abyss only to deliver the cheapest, laziest form of cinematic violence there is – especially since that violence has a long history of exploitation without justification in the themes of the text.
I don’t begrudge anyone who managed to have a good time with this ludicrous schlock. In fact, I envy anyone who did. I even suspect my distaste for it will cause conflict with other Swampflixers around Best of the Year list-making season, since it’s the exact kind of thing we usually praise around here. Indeed, I even found plenty to enjoy from scene to scene: the psychedelic freak-outs, the gory body horror, the comical over-utilization of split diopter shots, the tension of a world-class cellist summoning all their willpower to not shit themselves on a public bus, etc. I just can’t personally get past how much the film wastes its own potential in its editing, its handling of sexual abuse, and its eagerness to over-explain and then re-explain to the audience what’s already embarrassingly obvious. The fact that it should have easily been one of my favorite films of the year only makes it stand out as one of my most hated, however personal that reaction may be.