Trigger Warning: Sexual Abuse, Graphic Violence
The Perfection – Netflix’s recent release – at first glance looks like a saga of jealousy and violence between two students of a revered music teacher. Charlotte Willmore (Allison Williams), a former cellist, reunited with her former teacher Anton (Steven Weber), instantly takes to his protégé, world-renowned cellist – Elizabeth Wells (Logan Browning). They embark on a romantic relationship tout de suite and take a trip together, but Charlotte’s intentions are hinted upon as being more sinister. After drugging Elizabeth and misleading her into believing she is sick, Charlotte encourages Elizabeth to cut off her hand and leaves her bleeding by the side of the road, in only a make-shift tourniquet keeping her alive.
An hour of predictable repercussions and Charlotte’s kidnapping by Elizabeth was followed by the reveal that Anton sexually assaults his students when they make a mistake while playing, for them to attain ‘the perfection’. Anton insists Charlotte play the cello for them and when she misses a note, asks his employees, Thies and Geoffery to rape her. A smirking Elizabeth says she should be the first and stands in front of a rope-bound Charlotte, as Thies and Geoffery collapse around them, choking.
The Perfection repeats the overused, cliched trope of the knight in shining armor, the only difference being, the knight is a woman this time.
At which, Charlotte and Elizabeth smile at each other and kiss, amidst the violence, revealing they were in on it together all along. Charlotte apparently drugged, gaslit, and mutilated Elizabeth to save her from the sexual abuse Anton was subjecting her to and Elizabeth forgives her and they decide to avenge themselves by killing Anton and everyone else at Bachoff Academy. It is also implied that they then go onto continue their previous romantic relationship. They mutilate Anton, sew his eyes and mouth shut, and play the cello together, each using one hand, while Anton is forced to listen, rotting away at his joints and slowly dying.
The Perfection isn’t your regular rape-revenge drama, in that it is much more disturbing and terrible than can be imagined. Throughout the movie, Charlotte never once speaks to Elizabeth about the abuse they suffered, she never suggests that Elizabeth consider leaving Bachoff or go to the police, instead, Charlotte goes on to mutilate someone she met three days ago, to apparently ‘save’ them when they didn’t ask for saving.
The Perfection tries to make Charlotte out to be a hero, a messiah and tries to make Elizabeth’s relationship with her, her saving grace, all the while completely disregarding the fact that Charlotte mutilated her and romanticising the unimaginable violence Charlotte subjects Elizabeth to.
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In the movie’s universe, Anton’s abuse somehow justifies Charlotte’s crime against Elizabeth. The movie fails to realize that it only replaces Anton taking Elizabeth’s bodily autonomy away with Charlotte taking it away. Anton felt entitled to the bodies of his students, but Charlotte felt just as entitled to Elizabeth’s body and being, she believed she could, with a clear conscience, make a life-changing, horrific decision for Elizabeth.
The most disturbing thing about The Perfection is that it punishes its victim for being a victim of sexual violence and doesn’t seem to take notice of the fact.
The Perfection repeats the overused, cliched trope of the knight in shining armor, the only difference being, the knight is a woman this time. Charlotte’s desire to save Elizabeth has nothing inherently wrong with it, but the fact remains that this wasn’t Charlotte’s call. Charlotte violated Elizabeth by mutilating her, and stating her abuse at the hands of Anton as justification in no way diminishes the violence of Charlotte’s actions.
The most disturbing thing about The Perfection is that it punishes its victim for being a victim of sexual violence and doesn’t seem to take notice of the fact. Elizabeth loses a hand for being raped by Anton, even if in Charlotte’s understanding it is to save her from further abuse. Apart from the years-long trauma of being sexually abused, Elizabeth now has to live with a permanent disability that demands her to pay the price of not picking up a bow again, ergo, giving up on being a cellist and keeping her away from music, something Elizabeth dedicated her entire life to. Charlotte might argue that by mutilating Elizabeth she was saving her, but all she does is punish the victim for her abuse.
The Perfection is blood, gore, and violence and it fairs well in the genre of horror, but it fails its women and the stories of their experiences with trauma. The movie takes Elizabeth from the hands of one of her abusers and throws her in the arms of another. The movie works hard to deliver on its shock-value, but doesn’t make any effort to do right by its women, and doesn’t bother itself with taking a more nuanced approach towards violence and trauma.
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In trying to ‘save’ Elizabeth from violence, Charlotte only inflicts more violence on her. Charlotte was Anton’s victim, but as for Elizabeth, she isn’t Anton’s victim alone, she’s Charlotte’s, too.
Featured Image Source: What’s on Netflix
I’m of two minds of about this analysis, one is it’s exactly the critique I would have made a couple years ago, highlighting the absurdity of the lengths Charlotte would go to “save” someone without even trying to tell them the truth and the implications of class and privilege the informs the viewer’s ability to see Charlotte as morally complex vs a monster. I think it’s distressing how, in order to keep the twist a secret, Charlotte is never made to apologize and Elizabeth must accept it.
But I’m not satisfied with this alone, because what the director has said about being influenced by The Handmaiden, which has a similar twist of female solidarity after a character has been deceiving another for actually more selfish reasons. Yet, The Handmaiden also sketches out the patriarchal systems from the start, allowing us to see the pressure on both women and then uses the romance to subvert it, The Perfection’s need to hide the institution and present the romance as deceptive in order to subvert the trope of female hatred indeed feels exploitative in a way Handmaiden seemed to subvert.
My theory upon re-watching is that where Handmaiden creates ambiguity and tension about Sook-He’s complicity in the institution, The Perfection exploits the tropes to create a scenario where Charlotte is unabashedly the hero in the face of what we only learn at the end was systematic abuse. This has the effect of the second half’s reveal of that abuse to feel exploitative rather than in the Handmaiden where the depths of cruelty of Himiko’s uncle is just a climax of what we already know he’s capable of.
The truly intriguing thing for me is how a Western style film has incorporated a kind of aesthetic found in Asian extreme cinema such as Dumplings, Lady Vengeance, and Bedevilled and in doing so has interpreted it’s themes rather shallowly, yet distinctly American. (The comparison of perfection to God, as well as elite institutions instilling a kind of cult-like atmosphere) Ultimately what comes out is it’s a film that’s trying to be transgressive, turning violence into a way to bring women together instead of apart, yet feels incomplete because it hinges on that act of transgression, rather then building to it like in The Handmaiden.
I think this video shows a way we can focus on the problems of the story not as a result of the content, but of how it fails to let us identify with the characters https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4sK4KB7sDE
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