In a 2018 essay for Vulture, critic Angelica Jade Bastien described horror as “the underlying sense of fear, and the exploration of this primal response on personal, cultural, and existential levels.” It’s a definition that illustrates the through-line between disparate stories like Hereditary and Annihilation, but also explains the appeal of rape-revenge narratives as a kind of existential body horror, an invasion of a non-consenting body by another person. But as with so many stories that linger on women’s pain, the rape-revenge genre tends to sensationalize the brutality women suffer “to justify stereotypically male pleasures of hyperbolic violence.” The Perfection, the new Netflix film from director Richard Shepherd falls right into that trap, unsuccessfully attempting to subvert the stories that came before it by adding women to its list of antagonists.
The film’s first act entails an elaborate arc wherein Charlotte (Allison Williams) seduces, poisons, mutilates, and abandons Lizzie (Logan Browning), the young woman who has replaced her in their shared mentor Anton’s (Steven Weber) esteem. The sequence is thrilling, but shocking in how eagerly it embraces the kind of body horror that makes most audiences squeal; there is vomit, feces, a hallucination, and an amputation. The viewer assumes that Charlotte’s vicious betrayal is an act of deranged jealousy by a rejected pupil, but soon learns the truth: Anton “trains” his young, pliable, female students through habitual rape within the confines of a soundproof performance room at the music school they both attended. The violence is punishment for failing to reach what he terms “the perfection.” Charlotte’s decision to drive Lizzie to a vicious dismemberment is merely her attempt to make her so disfigured that Anton will reject her, forcibly and permanently separating her from her abuser.
This reveal attempts to justify the additional pain that Lizzie suffers at Charlotte’s hands, but instead it feels like an attempt to layer thin, feminist motivations over an absolutely deranged act. Lizzie, like Charlotte, is a victim of Anton’s abuse. By drugging her and driving her to disability, Charlotte appoints herself as master of Lizzie’s mind and merely perpetuates her suffering, further punishing her for the crime of being a victim. In a flashback, Charlotte rationalizes this disfigurement as a necessary evil because of how thoroughly Anton has brainwashed Lizzie, but it’s a conclusion she reaches without cause. At no point does Charlotte ever try to relate to Lizzie through their common experiences, so there is no reason to presume it would have been a failure.
The movie pretends for as long as it can that its central conflict isn’t about rape, which ironically only serves to increase the ambient threat of sexual violence and make the inevitable reveal feel gratuitous and unnecessary. The attempts at misdirection do not work; the eventual confirmation feels less like a reveal and more like punishment. Smartly, The Perfection never depicts a rape, but it finds lots of time to substitute other, more traditional kinds of violence instead. The film starts off as a fun, relatively predictable horror film, then rapidly devolves into the grotesque as the narrative shifts and bends with its many twists.
The film also uncomfortably equates disability and horror. Lizzie does not simply lose her hand, but her newly healed wrist is incorporated into yet another violent scene. Toward the end of the film as Anton’s henchmen attempt to rape Charlotte, Lizzie threateningly slides her amputated hand between her legs; fisting without a fist. But the scene is yet another one of The Perfection’s many twists and turns. Lizzie and Charlotte have teamed up to take Anton down. As his henchmen fall to the ground poisoned and dead, Lizzie and Charlotte tenderly kiss, resuming their earlier romance and blurring the lines between violence and pleasure. The moment is deeply unsettling. Charlotte is still bound by her wrists and feet to Anton’s contraption when they embrace. It hardly seems the time for romance.
Perversely, all the violence feels designed to lead up to the gruesome final image: Charlotte and Lizzie each down an appendage after a final, bloody confrontation, wrapped around each other’s bodies and a single cello, as they play a requiem for Anton, now made perpetually imperfect with his eyes and mouth sewn shut and each of his four limbs removed, visibly rotting at the joints. It is repulsive in the most literal sense, and it’s hard to discern how this level of extreme violence would bring either woman any sense of peace.
Part of the problem with The Perfection is that it takes great pains to position itself as a female empowerment story, but refuses to accept that it is merely a grotesque rape revenge fantasy in the lineage of Revenge, I Spit On Your Grave, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or even Jennifer’s Body. Films of that ilk have their place, but they do not pretend to be more than they are; schlocky, violent displays of id with no bearing on the real world. For good or for ill, those films lean hard into the absurdity of their premise: female victims of sexual violence transformed into near super-human killing machines, singularly focused on exacting a kind of vigilante justice in the name of their lost peace of mind. In reality, these depictions sustain the idea that “real” victims get revenge. They do not go gently into the good night, but fight, kicking and screaming to avenge themselves. The focus is always on violence instead of real and lasting trauma.
It makes sense that wronged characters in a genre film would not simply contact the authorities and report the misdeeds of their abusers. If they did, what would be left to distinguish the stories? But there is a wide gulf between justice and what The Perfection imagines. Violence here exists not for catharsis, but for spectacle.
The Perfection is currently streaming on Netflix.
Cate Young (@battymamzelle): smugsexual, thundercunt hagbeast.