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The Perfection

The Perfection

Just keep practicing, it's the only way to get to Carnegie Hall

dir: Richard Shepard


That was… a decidedly macabre experience.

Some films live for their twists. Others pay lip service to the twist, and just dangle it as an afterthought at the end, which often undoes much of the goodwill a film might have earned along the way. Others are so dependent on their twists that getting invested in the story seems pointless once you know that the rug is going to be pulled out enough times such that there’s nothing left to believe in anymore, man. The whole System is corrupt, Man!

But some films, like this one, and the great recent Korean flick The Handmaiden, have twists baked into the production, meaning we couldn’t predict what was coming, or why, but it at least enhances the story even as it keeps changing course in whiplash-inducing ways.

We think we know what’s going on. We don’t really know what’s going on, until the very end.

The Perfection refers to… something, I’m not entirely sure what. It might be the level of excellence required by the elite classical musicians of this strange world. It could also be a short cut phrase to the almost-cult like mentality of the musicians trained at the 1 % of the 1 % that is the Backoff Academy, run like a personal fiefdom by Anton (Steven Weber).

Whatever it means, exactly, it refers at least to something that these damaged people aspire to. Charlotte (Allison Williams) was the prodigy in her day, achieving a world standard on the cello at a tender age, only to have to leave the school when her mother suffered a stroke. She leaves, descending the stairs, as another ascends the stairs to take her place.

Ten years pass, and Charlotte’s mother dies, so it seems Charlotte has some sort of plan to get back into the music world, by chumming up with the people she used to know, like Anton and his partner Paloma. Also, there’s the new queen of the international cello scene, the star pupil Lizzie (Logan Browning), who is somehow improbably advertising soft drinks or bowling balls or something on Shanghai billboards. Some young prodigies are playing to compete for the honour of a scholarship to the Backoff Academy, for the ever so prestigious honour. It’s ever so much an honour.

It’s strange, but Charlotte and Lizzie seem to really hit it off. We keep seeing some flashbacks, half-second images, that seem to imply that Charlotte did not have an easy time of it upon leaving the school, but if she harbours any anger towards Lizzie, she keeps it to herself. They really really hit it off, go dancing, and drinking, and fall into each other’s arms, with Lizzie in command.

Later on, Charlotte admits that she never really had any chance for sex or relationships when looking after her mother, so this dalliance represents a new horizon for her, which is a bit surprising to Lizzie. Anyway, even after the sex, they seem to be getting along, so Lizzie invites Charlotte to travel with her into the Chinese countryside in pursuit of more cello prodigies.

In a film filled with unbelievable occurrences and wild goings-on, that’s probably the least believable thing that happens. How is taking an ancient bus into the countryside going to help you find musical prodigies? That’s like looking for a needle in a haystack full of needles with a seeing eye dog and a fishing rod with no magnet.

I agree, that’s a terrible analogy, but I kind of got lost along the way. Just like some of the characters do here. When they embark on their journey, Lizzie seems to be horribly hungover. Charlotte tries to be helpful and supportive, but Lizzie is getting worse and worse, even with the pills Charlotte keeps giving her.

There’s no way to avoid this – Lizzie gets so sick on the bus that she starts being sick from both ends. Thankfully, we don’t see the one set of results, but we do see her vomiting everywhere, something which I truly hate seeing in movies, but hey, it’s necessary.

See, not only is Lizzie sick, she seems to be infested with some horrible bugs. Really horrible bugs. And when she starts seeing them appear on her arm, and then Charlotte helpfully provides her with the means by which she can divest herself of the offending appendage, a penny drops, and we think “Oh, so that’s what was going on.”

Saying more about that first section would spoil the flick too tremendously, but suffice to say even when we think we have a handle on what we think Charlotte is doing, the story shifts again, and we realise that there is something else at play, something even more horrifying that what Lizzie experiences in that first half hour.

From there the flick shifts to something far nastier. Far nastier than I could have predicted, but there are plenty of clues strewn like breadcrumbs along the way. Charlotte has a tattoo on her shoulder, of a single note. It’s funny, but Lizzie seems to have the same tattoo.

It’s not hard to see why, but Lizzie’s no longer the star pupil of the Backoff Academy, and, no longer capable of the perfection required, she is cast off like last week’s underwear by Anton and his coterie of sycophants.

Classical music lovers have got to be the worst, don’t they? Any time they are depicted in films invariably they’re meant to be serial killers or worse. It’s shorthand for “pervert” as far as films are concerned. I mean, what sort of person could really like that kind of music, eh? They’d have to be fucked in the head or extremely fussy or both.

Classical music itself might not be the problem here, as in it’s more about the environment created, the sacrifices required to achieve whatever the heck it is that “perfection” is, and the determination of these poor girls to do whatever is required in order to not let their awful mentors down.

With Lizzie out of the picture, the newest prodigy, not uncoincidentally from the Shanghai trip, Zhang Li (Eileen Tian) is ever so grateful to her new masters, ever so willing to do whatever it takes to achieve PERFECTION. But what this poor girl doesn’t know is that she is merely a pawn in a larger game of revenge and shitty people getting what they deserve.

There is no doubt that, eventually, we come to side with Charlotte and Lizzie against the powers that be. If you’re not on their side, then I don’t know what to tell you. The problem becomes whether you have the stomach for that revenge, and whether it bothers you that given what the actual motivation for Charlotte’s actions is, does it make her actions in the first sequence in China still make sense, considering that the extremity of the action kinda supersedes what comes after? And once we accept that this isn’t some elegant, highbrow examination of envy and righteous vengeance, but instead a well-acted but trashy revenge fantasy like something Brian De Palma used to make back in the day which would have had heaps more blood and at least 14 thousand more nude scenes if he’d been at the helm, do we accept that it doesn’t have to make sense anymore in order to be enjoyable or satisfying?

For me it falls on the enjoyable side. I’m a pretty squeamish person these days, but I didn’t find the brutality of what transpires too, uh, brutal. Allison Williams has been trading on this upper class kind of privileged WASPiness that harbours a darker nature for most of her acting career, both in the HBO series Girls where her character’s job was to be even more narcissistic and self-centred than Hanna Horvath in any given interaction, and even more memorably as the girlfriend in Get Out.

The definitive moment in Get Out that encapsulates what she brings to the table as an actor is the scene where her boyfriend Chris keeps asking her to find her keys in her bag, so that they can get the fuck out of Dodge. His escalating terror and pleas for the keys to be found are met with her half-hearted attempts to give the appearance of looking for the keys. In the end, she stops trying to find the keys, and just gives a certain smile, like, sorry, don’t hate me for it, but, this was never going to end well for any of us, don’t you know.

It's that shrug, that polite smile, that’s the essence she brings here, but it’s matched to a very different steeliness, a determination I’ve never seen her display before, with a character untethered (anymore) to any need to conform to anything or any consideration towards anyone else.

Logan Browning is no slouch either. She brings an array of qualities to her performance as Lizzie that I’ve not seen previously, despite enjoying her work on the comical and caustic Dear White People Netflix series about African-American students at a recently integrated college (that used to be historically black). She gets to enter a weirdly symbiotic / parasitic relationship with Charlotte, nowhere summarised better than the very last scene, seeing them perform in a way that visually is pretty stunning, even if thinking about it for more than two seconds makes you think “That seems somewhat unlikely”. Her earlier scene where she psychoanalyses the behaviour of two of the parents at the cello competition is priceless, but her righteous fury towards the end is even more enjoyable.

The Perfection is a dark, nasty film, but it makes a certain kind of sense, since in truth we humans are not capable of perfection in anything other than mathematics, but in aspiring towards it we are capable of greatness, both in terms of great achievements and great evil.

7 times I think this isn’t a great advertisement for Shanghai tourism out of 10

“I made a mistake.”
- “Yes, you did.” – we all make mistakes, the character building element is who we kill afterwards to make up for it – The Perfection