On Friday nights, IndieWire After Dark takes a feature-length beat to honor fringe cinema in the streaming age.
First, the spoiler-free pitch for one editor’s midnight movie pick — something weird and wonderful from any age of film that deserves our memorializing.
Then, the spoiler-filled aftermath as experienced by the unwitting editor attacked by this week’s recommendation.
The Pitch: How Many Lesbian Orchestra Nightmares Even Are There?
“The Perfection” is the only movie from 2019 still keeping me up at night.
That’s not because it features the single most forced amputations of any Netflix original I have ever witnessed; and it’s not because writer/director Richard Shepard manages to simultaneously tap into both my fears of vomiting and maggots via Logan Browning’s mouth at minute 27.
Rather, the singularly strange lezzie body horror gets under my skin because of how and where I watch it. The streaming age is unpredictable and perilous, and more than most hidden gems, “The Perfection” feels like the sort of queerdo fringe treat — precariously exclusive to a single platform — that I could see inexplicably disappearing behind an ever-heavier corporate curtain if we don’t clap loud enough.
When “The Perfection” hit Netflix in 2019, there was no question that distributing Allison Williams’ first film since Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” was a decent play among subscribers. Fresh off her Froot Loop-induced lunacy, the former “Girls” star was a newly minted scream queen, known for playing type-A villains with elaborately hidden motives.
Marketing for “The Perfection” positioned Williams’ perceived duplicity brilliantly in its new context: effectively inviting audiences they were confident would try the film anyway to misunderstand her complicated character as a full-stop bad guy in the movie’s promotion.
Watch the trailer for “The Perfection” now (it auto-plays on the platform, and is still maddeningly misleading) and you can easily envision a C-tier flick about an obsessive, unstable ex-cellist meeting her prodigy replacement and getting even. Think something akin to Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” but starring a Leighton Meester in “The Roommate”-type and themes even more toxic to queer women.
In reality, “The Perfection” is so much better, bolder, gayer, and grosser than that. Far removed from the “Get Out” fervor that might’ve once propped it up, Shephard’s body horror can safely stand on its own as an uneven but gobsmacking delight — and you don’t need to be tricked into cuing it up.
Spoiler-wary critics (myself included) were reticent to explain why a seemingly schlocky Netflix original knocking off Universal’s casting could actually be a cult classic in the making back in 2019. So it was a pleasant surprise when word-of-mouth proved enough to make “The Perfection” into a proper moment; Williams’ red look from the film was briefly a top carousel mainstay on Netflix’s homepage.
But what has that virality done for “The Perfection” lately? It was with a heavy heart that I watched Todd Field’s “TÁR” come and go from the film conversation last year with next to no mention of this oddly similar work. Yes, the two movies are ultimately worlds apart in tone and target audience. But the politically minded Netflix gore-fest and the Cate Blanchett-starring cancel culture portrait are both dread-inducing lesbian revenge sagas set in the cutthroat classical music world — each with spectacular endings serving as brutal punctuation on metaphors for social criticism — each with obvious Park Chan-wook influences. You think it would’ve come up. (And they’re both directed by men! Parallels!)
It’s a brutal reality of the entertainment landscape that more and more titles are going poof by the day — and an existential threat to cinema found on the fringes when “Watch the lesbian cellist rape revenge conspiracy epic before it’s too late…” just feels like common sense. —AF
The Aftermath: Did I Just Watch Somebody Get Wristed?
The human body has a finite number of orifices — and a finite number of limbs that can be inserted into those orifices. So, at a certain point, it’s natural to assume that your days of discovering brand new sex acts are behind you. But every once in a while, a movie like “The Perfection” comes along to remind us that there’s a wide world of unexplored sexual terrain that’s waiting for anyone with the creativity (and supply of meat cleavers) to expand their horizons. No, I did not wake up this morning expecting to see a bony wrist inserted into a human vagina after having its hand chopped off. But to paraphrase Steve Jobs, great art doesn’t follow public taste — it stretches it.
I’ll admit that I was on the fence about this movie up until the last 10 minutes. Anyone who has seen my “Honk If You Love Orchestral Drama with Maggot Vomiting” bumper sticker can attest to the fact that the premise is right up my alley, but the execution wasn’t always there. The directing was competent and the twists were fun, but I never felt that it transcended “relaxing B-movie that you never think about again” territory.
But that perverse, glorious ending assuaged all of my concerns. The day I can’t be thrilled by full-frontal male nudity, girl-on-girl cello playing that’s grotesque yet anatomically correct, and a dismembered man whose eyes and mouth have been sealed shut will be the day I retire from film criticism. Fortunately, we’re not there yet.
The ending was so perfect that it became clear that the entire convoluted plot was retroactively engineered to get us there at all costs. That can be a compliment to or an indictment of the film, depending on who you ask, but I think that’s what makes it an undeniably great midnight movie. After all, late night viewers have always judged films on a wide variety of criteria that have nothing to do with their objective quality. Bad movies can become cult classics when we choose to view them in contexts their creators could have never imagined. And otherwise boring films can be immortalized due to one incredible scene that demands repeat viewings.
My overall assessment of “The Perfection” isn’t nearly that harsh; I still think there are plenty of redeeming moments scattered throughout the first two acts. But it’s an undeniable sign that you’re watching a midnight classic when you see an image that is instantly burned into your brain for the rest of your life. I hope I don’t spend my last few seconds on my deathbed thinking about Logan Browning pleasuring Allison Williams with her wrist, but it’s now impossible for me to rule out the possibility. For that, Richard Shepard has earned my depraved respect. —CZ
“The Perfection” is streaming on Netflix. Read more IndieWire After Dark…