Biweekly Binge - The Perfection: Notes on a scandal
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week it's the Netflix film, The Perfection
Anton (Steven Weber) introduces Zhang Li, a young student cellist, to the soundproof, acoustically peerless and sophisticated basement of the Bachoff Academy somewhere near Boston (the makers probably thought going all the way to Maine will give too much away). He calls it a chapel. Like all chapels it has stained glass adorning the back wall and a raised platform in front of it. Under normal circumstances, we'd probably find a cross or the figure of Christ. Instead, we find Anton standing in front of the glass looming over the diminutive Zhang Li. In Bachoff, where they give full scholarship and train cello prodigies — effectively taking control of their lives, the way religion or God does — Anton is… God. He is the central figure around whom everything and everyone revolves. If he wills it, you can become the greatest young cellist in the world. That is the kind of power and influence Anton and Bachoff possess. But that cannot be all. Bachoff also, strangely, sounds like back-off.
Richard Shepard's The Perfection — streaming on Netflix — is about two graduates of Bachoff Academy, Allison Williams' Charlotte Willmore and Logan Browning's Elizabeth Wells, with antipodal fortunes. Charlotte was forced to quit from the academy when her mother fell ill, while Lizzie went on to finish her time at Bachoff to become a billboard-splashing talent across the world. The film begins just as Charlotte's mother passes — Shepard focuses on her pale static face — offering Charlotte parole out of her prison-like life at her home. She gets back in touch with Anton and his wife Paloma, both of whom receive her with open arms even if their star performer and favourite Bachoff alumni is now Lizzie.
The Perfection is named after the obvious — the quest to hit the perfect note, perfect performance (both Lizzie and Charlotte have a note tattooed on their backs, a sign of Bachoff approval and sanction). An echo of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan is obvious — two women vying for the same spot, same kind of validation and artistic expression. In the process, the exploitation part of it is normalised so much that both are brainwashed to believe it a rite of passage. Both Lizzie and Charlotte seem to have lost themselves in the process of achieving that perfection with nothing but that single goal as their focus. In Charlotte's case it is further muddled by the loss of her mother (both her figurative absence from her life and later her death, when the events in the film begin).
Shepard gets across this unyielding focus in different ways. In the early stages of the film, there are more close ups, the faces dominate, especially the expressionless visage of Charlotte. She goes in search of Anton and Paloma, but her main end point is Lizzie. And Allison Williams does well, her deep, blue eyes silently unearthing long held secrets with just one piercing look at Lizzie. When they are finally in the same room, Shepard uses a shallow depth of field as if to suggest that as of this moment, there is no one in Charlotte's path but Lizzie. Lizzie's face is then bathed in shades of different colours like she's mesmerized into submission by Charlotte. And she is. She says Charlotte is her idol, how she was a big fan as a 9-year-old and Charlotte, the pick of Bachoff's students then, was 14. When she is speaking to Charlotte, you can imagine the jelly that are her legs and sense the skip in her heartbeat.
Comparisons with Get Out are unavoidable especially when for more than half the runtime of The Perfection, we are not sure about Charlotte's or more specifically, Allison Williams's motivations, and are expected to root for Lizzie. Like Get Out, The Perfection too teases genres — what we think is mystical horror is closer to real life than it seems. At one point, Lizzie vomits bugs and her insides, everything from arms to brain feel like they are crawling with the lot. It might be a metaphor stretched far but it works. Charlotte may be enlightened but who will find a way to pull Lizzie free of the bugs in her head? And therefore, the different chapters The Perfection is divided into. It begins with a mission but takes a detour, it finds a home and ends with a duet. The final shot is a neat composition, a jigsaw puzzle of a film that is worked from the edges to the centre has finally found its lost piece.