The gasps, shudders and yells at the screen could be heard straight from the Twitter scroll as one by one over the weekend viewers watched “The Perfection,” Netflix’s latest horror film to follow the success of “Bird Box.” It’s a movie designed for real-time online reaction and thus totally of the moment.
“The Perfection” stars Allison Williams (“Girls,” “Get Out”) and Logan Browning (“Dear White People”) as young cello prodigies who, after connecting at a concert in Shanghai, return to their cutthroat music academy to seek revenge on an abusive teacher. It’s gruesome, violent, erotic and totally bonkers. The plot is almost impossible to describe without spoilers, but “Black Swan” and “The Fly” have both been invoked in reviews.
[Read our review of “The Perfection.”]
Directed by Richard Shepard, an alum of “Girls,” and written by him, Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, the film had its premiere last fall at the horror-themed Fantastic Fest and was quickly bought by Netflix.
#MeToo was very much on the minds of its creators, and it ends with a feminist exclamation point. Yet when the movie opens, Browning said, they wanted viewers to think “this is some jealous rivalry. Then you’re immediately bombarded with the notion that it’s not. Each plot twist is a feminist statement.”
Stacey Reiss, one of the producers, said the movie was filmed right as Harvey Weinstein was being accused of sexual abuse (he has pleaded not guilty and trial is set for September), and the creative team was well aware of the issues raised by his case. Shepard noted that “genre movies are able to talk about subjects that are maybe a little too difficult to talk about in other ways,” and that the women in the movie “are able to correct wrongs that have happened in their lives, and that’s a powerful message.”
Reiss added, “This is a film about women supporting other women. It’s this idea that we’re all in this together.”
They chose classical music as a backdrop, Shepard said, because it’s a world that emphasizes effortlessness and obsession, and yet there’s a heightened ugliness under the surface because of all the grueling work it takes to perfect their art. Like the church, it is an insular community that holds sway over young people. The two characters can speak through their instruments, but are otherwise silent about their pasts and the costs of becoming stars.
Shepard drew on a number of influences, including “The Keepers,” a documentary series that involves sexual abuse at a Catholic school, as well as the work of the directors Park Chan-wook (particularly his erotic thriller “The Handmaiden”) and Brian De Palma.
“This movie could easily have been trash, and some people might think that, but I think it’s more than that,” Shepard said. “It’s got a lot going on.”
The story is told through seemingly unconnected chapters that take you from a concert in Shanghai to a bus ride through rural China that goes haywire, complete with a butcher cleaver and flesh-eating vermin, back to suburban Minneapolis and the music academy where the women each began — and where they eventually confront their teacher, played by Steven Weber. In the process, you figure out the horrors that were inflicted upon them in their quests to become artists.
For Williams, part of the appeal of working in horror is that women get a lot of opportunities to show their range and complexity. “One of the greatest gestures of love a filmmaker can give to a female character is just attention and time,” she said, along with “nuance, where women are not always one way or another.”
In her view, her cellist in “The Perfection” somewhat resembled her racist girlfriend in “Get Out” because neither character is rendered to the audience in a complete way until the end of the movie. “Not knowing who these people are is part of the plot,” she said. When she first read “The Perfection,” she said, “I couldn’t get a handle on this person, because the movie doesn’t want you to. The movie wants you to resist the sense that you know this trope of a character, and it’s constantly upending your assumptions. And that’s how people are. They traffic in different personalities or emphasize different sides of themselves to survive.”
The movie shows a lot of violence, but Shepard said steps were taken to make sure everyone felt comfortable, a sign of how sets are adjusting in the wake of #MeToo. Shepard said he understood that “as a 54-year-old white male, I have a specific point of view. But that’s not the world we live in.” He added, “We had very strong women on set, with very strong opinions about things, and they helped inform how we told the story.”
Williams said she and Browning were both involved in the script and brought into the editing room, where they had a say and also were given final cut on a sex scene.
For Browning, it also meant making sure there were women of color who helped her prepare for her role and helped teach her the cello, which both she and Williams learned to play. She also worked with Shepard to adjust the script to give her character more autonomy. “With me as a black woman,” she said, “we wanted to make sure the story wasn’t a white-savior film, and so scenes were inserted and changed.”
That extends to the very end, which, without giving the whole thing away, has caused the strongest reaction. The women get their revenge and the catharsis comes with a #MeToo message: The man who tortured them is forced to listen. It’s one shot that says everything.
Part of the reason it has hit a nerve, Reiss speculated, is because “it mirrors what’s happening right now. A lot of men have been forced to take a seat and watch, and women are having their moment.”
Reiss added, “A lot of women who came to screenings came out with that reaction of ‘wow.’ There are a lot of days where I feel like I want to scream, and this allows you to scream.”
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