The Perfection is a wild ride of twists and genre shifts. However many styles it flirts with, it’s eventually clear that at its heart it’s a Gothic, exuberantly dark and overblown, a kind of American, B-movie cousin to both Suspiria and Diabolique. (And a pretty good example of how central queer relationships can be featured in plotty genre movies.) By tying itself so closely to the tumultuous psyches of its two central characters–Charlotte (Allison Williams) and Lizzie (Logan Browning)–the movie ultimately manages its tonal shifts successfully. It’s about Charlotte and Lizzie, and we stay with Charlotte and Lizzie, whatever they’re going through. And they go through a lot.
We open with Charlotte seeming fragile and brittle in the aftermath of her mother’s death. Once a remarkable cellist and a child prodigy, Charlotte left her training behind years ago to assist her mother through a long-term illness. Now, she’s adrift. She reaches out to her former teachers, Anton and Paloma (Steven Weber and Alaina Huffman), who run a prestigious music academy and travel worldwide to recruit students; they seem delighted to have her return to help out. They introduce her to Lizzie, their current star, a few years younger than Charlotte but apparently far more at home in the world and far more self-assured. She’s had the career that Charlotte was kept from, but Charlotte remains one of her heroes, someone whose music changed her life. There’s enough free-floating unease for us to to wonder what dark envy and resentment could lie just beneath the surface of their interactions, even as they embark on a passionate night together and decide to go on a road trip across China.
Then everything goes to hell.
It’s a hard film to discuss without spoilers, and a first-time viewing really is better with the movie’s surprises intact. But suffice to say, while the plot seems to run headlong into a virus movie, it doesn’t stay there; what happens to Lizzie and Charlotte on the road is most important in terms of how it shapes–and reveals–their relationships with Anton, who values “the perfection” in musical performance far more than he values the students who can no longer tap into it. Charlotte and Lizzie were once intimately acquainted with Anton’s concept of “the perfection” and everything that accompanied it, and now they’re shut out, unable to fully reenter his world and unable to feel fully at home outside it, given the weight of their pasts.
The Perfection‘s Grand Guignol is as gross, bloody, and over-the-top as it tends to come, but its violence and grotesqueries suit its messy, damaged heart. In the end, it’s a powerful, pulpy example of contemporary Gothic.