Garrett Wareing’s nameless teenager is a sinner. Big time. Eddie Alcazar’s “Perfect” opens after he’s murdered a naked girl. Who she is and how it happened doesn’t figure into the plot. Wareing’s character, referred to in the credits as Vessel 13, doesn’t even seem to know. He and his emotionally distant mother (Abbie Cornish) just want to make sure it doesn’t happen again, not so much out of a concern for his victims but just a vague vanity that his inner self be as radiant as his model good looks. (Alcazar takes care to shoot Wareing’s high cheekbones and bee-stung lips like every frame could do double duty hawking Gucci.) And so the boy is shipped off to a forested clinic to become flawless through a procedure where he cuts out cubes of his own flesh with a box cutter and replaces them with clear silicone. Yes, there’s blood. But he’s too numb to feel pain.
Clearly, “Perfect” exists in the world of skin-deep allegory, and frankly, it’s a challenge to get beneath the surface. Matthias Koenigswieser’s camera has the hard, lush look of high-fashion photography. The clinic is encircled by Eden-esque woods, a waterfall, and a skyscraper-tall sculpture that looks like a granite Pez dispenser. Staring at the supine beauties littered across the modernist furniture feels like attempting to conjure a plot from a Helmut Newton photograph. There lies a glamazon glaring just left of the camera with cryptic menace.
What it means, Alcazar leaves open for interpretation. He’s more a mood maker than a story teller, and the film feels like people watching at a fancy party and inhaling different wafts of perfume. As the boy kills time doing slow-motion yoga, “Perfect’s” handsome production design starts to feel oppressively unsettling. We’re struck by an overwhelming sense of need and disappointment, plus a jab at modern consumers’ obsession with purification, which seems to be teetering toward 18th-century snake oil science. One level deeper, there’s a sense that the boy’s failures reflect on his parents — or really, his Creator, as the swirling galactic imagery during the opening credits evokes the book of Genesis. Meanwhile, the narrator speechifies about keeping the universe in balance, one of the theological arguments for unleashing Satan.
The boy seems to be hoping to extract the primal anger inside so-called civilized man. His doctors have made him slice off so many squares of his flesh that by the end, he’s completely cross-hatched with laser beams skittering across his shaved skin. How much of himself can he shear and swap before he’s no longer himself? But still, when the boy closes his eyes, he imagines himself as a mud-coated savage attacking women like fellow guest Sarah (Courtney Eaton), who spends the running time lounging around in sexy swimwear and see-through gowns solemnly intoning about her higher state of evolution, or just as often, not saying anything at all.
Alcazar shoots these scenes in a black-and-white that’s so crisp you can see each dried flake of dirt. Later, he zooms in repulsively close to Wareing smearing his face with a moldy peach, and near the climax includes a scene of cannibalism that’s not for the weak.
Alcazar and his frequent artistic collaborator Flying Lotus, who composed and executive-produced “Perfect,” make a, well, perfect team. (They traded production roles when Flying Lotus directed “Kuso.”) Both are fixated on body horror, vanity, breaking good-taste boundaries, and blurring the lines between feature film, music video, and art installation. Together, they’re inventing a grotesque niche that most people — this critic included — might find pretentious. “Is perfection something the world needs?” asks Cornish. Alcazar is fine if most audiences say no, as long as at least one keyed-in weirdo says yes.