It’s punishment more than practice that makes “The Perfection,” which is less a horror film per se than a grisly yet upscale grand guignol melodrama. Richard Shepard’s very tricky suspense film, co-written with the TV writing-producing team of Eric Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, has been a success for Netflix. The streaming service released the film earlier this year, picking it up after it made a stir at Fantastic Fest 2018.
The tale of classical musicianship and elaborate revenge is easier to admire than actually like, given somewhat repellent content grounded in character psychology that does not bear close scrutiny after these terse 90 minutes are over. Still, the icily well-crafted gamesmanship Shepard and company have devised certainly makes that time pass quickly, if uncomfortably.
The director has turned mostly to small-screen work since his last theatrical feature, “Dom Hemingway” (2013), including a dozen episodes of “Girls,” whose Allison Williams plays the lead here. Her Charlotte Willmore is first met at the end of a decade’s isolation, spent caring for a terminally ill mother. Now that mom is gone, Charlotte writes Anton Bachoff (Steven Weber), whose favorite protégé she was at his eponymous music academy outside Boston. In her absence, that role was inherited by younger fellow cellist Elizabeth Wells (Logan Browning from the series “Dear White People” and “Hit the Floor”). Lizzie, as she prefers to be called, also got the career and fame that would presumably have been Charlotte’s had she stayed the course.
Meeting the Bachoff staff (also including Alaina Huffman as the chief’s spouse, plus instructors Graeme Duffy and Mark Kandborg) in Shanghai, where they will select their latest child-prodigy scholarship student, Charlotte meets her rival at last. Perhaps surprisingly, the two get along like gangbusters, to the point of a drunken night’s partying that ends in fairly graphic hotel-room sex. The morning after, hung-over but still mutually smitten, they agree to see some of the surrounding countryside. However, Lizzie feels worse and worse, which is ominous not least because a serious contagion has already been noted as spreading in the region. This situation escalates, reaching a critical juncture as the two are stuck on a public bus crawling high into the mountains.
It’s best not to reveal what happens then, or at any later point in “The Perfection,” beyond mentioning that at the 40-minute mark things rewind — for the first but not last time — to show us just how the characters really got in so deep. Subsequent events in Minneapolis and Boston keep turning the tables, making victims into avengers and vice versa, the action growing ever-more grotesque.
Given how sadistic and tasteless much of this is in concept — particularly the introduction of systemic sexual abuse as a key plot element — it’s impressive how Shepard and his collaborators manage to make the film seem more coolly clever than just plain lurid. There is some ickiness, to be sure, but most of it is planted in the mind, rather than the eye, of the beholder.
The result is entertaining in a way that’s at once showy and rather clinical. Shepard’s best movie, 2005’s “The Matador,” was likewise a tricksome narrative. But despite also having major outré elements, it liked its characters in a way that escapes this more misanthropic exercise. We’re asked to make some mighty leaps of logic here, in terms of how the central figures would react to extreme adversity. “The Perfection” only gets away with them because it’s swift and intense enough that you can (probably) accept the incredible, at least in the moment. While this material might’ve easily lent itself to scenery-chewing, the leads are admirable in their commitment to naturalism, while supporting players favor judicious restraint in roles that no doubt tempted more flamboyant interpretations.
Speaking of interpretation, that is an individual freedom highly valued in classical players, at least as much as technical “perfection” — but then, this movie is very far from the worst offender among screen horrors playing fast and loose with the realities of that artistic milieu. It does convincingly portray a world of conservatories, concert halls, and anxious stage parents, with Vanja Cernjul’s widescreen cinematography, John Marcynuk’s production design, and Beverley Huynh’s costumes all adding considerable surface elegance. Their contributions help render digestible a story that makes some real demands on a viewer’s strong stomach.