The first thing to note about The Perfection is that it’s not an easy film to talk about. To offer anything more than surface observations is to compromise the film’s unexpected nature, so much so that when the trailer was first released at the end of April, people who had already seen the film begged curious viewers to hold off. “I have a love/hate relationship with the trailer,” admits co-writer Eric Charmelo. “It’s a beautifully cut trailer – and if it gets eyeballs on the screen then it’s doing its job – but I hate to give away spoilers in trailers, I really, really, really do.” Even more than most films, erring on the side of secrecy seems to fit this feature well.
Here, then, are only the most relevant details. Charlotte (Allison Williams), a former child prodigy as a cellist, is eager to reconnect with her former music teacher Anton (Steven Webber) after a long period away from the music industry. Soon afterward, she meets Lizzie (Logan Browning), the student who took Charlotte’s place at the Backoff Academy after she left. The two quickly form a connection, and from there, the movie refuses to do a single thing you expect of it. Even the most basic description – an attempt to categorize the movie based on genre alone – is an exercise in absurdity; in the words of co-writer and director Richard Shepard, The Perfection is a film that “starts as an erotic thriller, then becomes a body horror movie, then becomes a regular horror movie, and then becomes a drama, and then a thriller, and then a revenge film.” Rarely has a filmmaker offered so much and explained so little.
But none of this means that The Perfection is unfocused. That couldn’t be more wrong. Shepard’s film emerges as a dark fable about music, talent, and obsession that remains incredibly consistent throughout. Given the way music shapes the lives of its central characters, it’s hard to imagine a version of this film that isn’t connected to the world of classical music on a very fundamental level, but that wasn’t always the case. “We really wanted to start at a point of romanticism and glamour,” co-writer Nicole Snyder explains, “and set it in a world that was rich and beautiful and have it devolve.” Before settling on music, the writing team had kicked around the idea of film festivals and dance, using films like Black Swan (2010) and Hilary and Jackie (1998) as reference points. Eventually, they landed on music. For Snyder, this was the right choice. “Something about the music world felt untapped and so beautiful, refined, and elegant.”
It’s an inspired setting. Many students begin to study their craft at a very young age; since most middle schools require some general music education as part of their core curriculum, the sensation of struggling with an instrument is a familiar one to countless families. More importantly, however, is the mythology of classic composers. Music history textbooks bear witness to centuries of abuse; child prodigies like Johann Sebastian Bach and Niccolò Paganini suffered greatly at the hands of adults who felt their talents demanded such excess. These narratives are often swept aside in favor of ones that focus on divine providence. As Anton says in The Perfection, he views his greatest performers as a vessel of God, not the haggard sum of hundreds and thousands of hours of forced rehearsals.
To play the part of prodigies, both Williams and Browning needed to do something even harder than navigate the film’s many tonal shifts. They needed to look like musicians. “I said to Allison and Logan that they needed to learn the pieces of music,” recalls Shepard, who asked the two actresses to study the cello for three months before shooting the film. Shepard is particularly proud of how few cutaways there are in the music scenes; of all the complicated performances in the film, they only needed “one shot of the doubles’ fingers” to augment their on-camera performance, despite how difficult those pieces of music were to learn. “Because it was original pieces of cello music that they were playing – which were written for the movie specifically – it was even harder than other types of music,” he explains. “It was written to be deeply difficult because they’re supposed to be playing world-class cellists.”
And because the film moves comfortably between genres, it has often been compared to the work of one filmmaker in particular. The Perfection has elicited comparisons to Park Chan-wook’s South Korean revenge trilogy, an unsurprising fact considering the films Shepard had his co-writers watch. “I showed Eric and Nicole – as well as Allison and Logan – these two Korean films called Oldboy and The Handmaiden,” the director explains. The Perfection‘s blend of the extreme and the sublime indeed seem drawn from Park’s iconic movies. Lurid, bombastic, and shocking in its capacity for violence, the film often feels like it is weaving its way between genres, sliding between exploitation and horror and comedy as the characters evolve. “You can’t believe what’s going on,” Shepard says of Park’s films, “and yet, they all sort of make sense by the end of the film. I thought that was very relevant to what we were trying to do.”
In fact, the most impressive aspect of The Perfection – even more than the performances – is the way the film maintains its balance despite the ferocity of its tonal swings. This was one of the biggest pain points for everyone involved. “We were all terrified,” explains Charmelo. “We knew that we were literally one degree away from full-on camp and exploitation, and we certainly were towing that line.” What keeps things grounded is the strength of the performances and the willingness of the audience to settle in for the ride. In his role as both a writer and the film’s director, Shepard believes that the first ten minutes of the film is essential to getting the audience on board. “Audiences know within the first five or 10 minutes of a movie whether they’re in competent hands,” he explains, “and if they feel that way, subconsciously, they’re willing to go with the story wherever it takes them.” This again speaks to the pressure put on Williams as the film’s star. The less empathy generated, the better.
But for all the film’s big swings, it’s the final moments of the movie that serve as its greatest triumph. Grotesque, cathartic, beautiful, and deeply, deeply satisfying, the film’s final two images are destined to be the inspiration of countless works of fan art. “I wanted to have a moment at the end of the movie that just took the film to another level,” the director explains. “That the story, in a way, is resolved, but you can tell from the last few images of the movie that things are still disturbed. The world is not at peace.” Not only is this the perfect ending for The Perfection – two little beats of time that take the movie from good to truly inspired – it also required one of Shepard’s strangest behind-the-scenes battles with Netflix. Rather than pivoting to a picture-in-picture preview of the next film in Netflix’s catalog, the screen stays with the credits. “I basically begged Netflix to allow the main end credits to play in fullscreen before they went to the next film,” Shepard admits. “Because I was like, ‘People need a minute after that last one, to digest the film.'”
Taken all together, The Perfection is one of the year’s most audacious films, a luscious and dangerous work of art that toes the line between subversion and exploitation (and might just have something relevant to say about today’s world in the process). It’s not a movie for everyone, but those willing to give themselves over to the madness – in the first ten minutes or otherwise – may discover that Netflix has picked up one of the smartest and most exciting thrillers of the decade. See you on the other side.