Netflix’s controversial new horror movie tries — and fails — to be a metaphor for rape culture.
This review contains both a general plot overview and major spoilers for The Perfection.
When I was a student at a prestigious music school, a widespread school legend told of the Juilliard School’s fiercely competitive piano department, whose students would place razor blades in between the keys of rehearsal pianos in practice rooms. If a student played too sloppily, the story went, they would pay for it in blood.
A variant of this urban legend finds its way into Netflix’s new, polarizing horror movie The Perfection, albeit in a far more disturbing form. In The Perfection, students pay for mistakes not merely with their blood but with their bodies, their minds, and perhaps their sanity. The ostensible catharsis of the film, which gleefully communicates its twists and revels in its own improbability, arrives when two of these students return to the roost.
Directed by Richard Shepard, whose credits include the Emmy-winning pilot of Ugly Betty, The Perfection premiered at last year’s Fantastic Fest, where it quickly became one of the festival’s most talked-about films. Its Netflix debut on May 24 set the horror community alight with debate, with some reviewers framing it as a jaw-dropping feminist must-watch and a “symphony of revenge,” while others read it as “misogynistic garbage,” an “exhausting” narrative of sexual violence.
[W]hen stripped of its maniacal trappings, The Perfection is dealing in very real emotions. It’s an acknowledgment of the symphony of pain inflicted by men on the women around them in the quest for perfection, and a celebration of emancipation.
I think it’s important to take a closer look at why critics have such divergent reads on the film, because The Perfection tells us a lot about what Hollywood is taking away from the #MeToo era — and not all of it is good. In essence, the movie looks like it should be a slick, thrilling emotional arc that speaks to women. But beneath the surface, it’s something more regressive.
The Perfection comes from a long, long line of horror films that all have the same plot and the same major problem
To proceed, I have to fully spoil The Perfectionist for you. The story centers on two cellists, Charlotte (Get Out’s Allison Williams) and Lizzie (Dear White People’s Logan Browning), who were both students at a prestigious, family-run Boston conservatory where they lived and trained throughout childhood. One of them, Charlotte, left school abruptly as a teen, but turns up at a music summit abruptly a decade later, after a mysterious stay in a mental hospital. She’s drawn to Lizzie, a prodigy who took her place as the conservatory’s star after she left, and they quickly fall for each other — and then things rapidly start to unravel.
The entire plot is intentionally (and enjoyably) convoluted, at one point trying hard to sell the movie as about a viral outbreak — but at the heart of the story is the revelation that the conservatory’s director, Anton (Steven Weber), has used the school as a front for his horrific rapes of students, in a system of exploitation that has existed within his family for generations. The film’s climax finds Lizzie and Charlotte paying a visit to their old music teacher to enact a blitzkrieg of violence upon him and his assistants.
On the surface, The Perfection emulates many other horror films that claim feminist cred: It uses its basic conceit — in this case, competition — as a gateway to exploring how women are victimized by a patriarchal society. Over the course of the story, the women must either succumb to that victimization or learn to navigate, survive, and perhaps overcome it. This is the aspect of The Perfectionist that appreciative critics point to when hailing it as an empowering vengeance fantasy — glossy, thrilling, more than a little zany, and entertaining from start to finish.
But The Perfection has nothing new to say about women’s experiences of sexual violence. In fact, it offers us a fetishized vision of female vengeance, one that ultimately seems far more like an extended male fantasy of domination than an authentic vision of female characters overcoming systemic rape culture.
A big reason for this is that rape revenge stories are nothing new in horror. They typically involve victims of sexual violence going on a murderous rampage after the incident, in order to destroy their rapists. Many rape revenge films kill the victim instead, in order to encourage her family or friends — nearly always men — to embark on this rampage after her death. A graphic subgenre often dubbed “rapesploitation” tends to center on sexual violence, filtered through the male gaze as a titillating form of entertainment, and then using that sexual assault to fuel the ultraviolence that follows.
At the same time, it’s especially tempting, and understandably so in the #MeToo era, to read some of these films as offering a vision of women’s empowerment that respects their autonomy without exploiting them. After all, they do offer us female characters who overcome sexual assault, and that’s at least aspirational. But in many ways, films like The Perfectionist are anything but feminist — in fact, they’re often actively regressive.
Rape revenge films are nearly always written by men and directed by men. (The Perfection was co-written by Shepard with Eric C. Charmelo and Nicole Snyder, who have both worked in the writers’ room of the decidedly less-than-feminist Supernatural, among other shows.) These mostly male-driven productions position sexual violence against women as a story told by men and meant to be consumed by men. It’s a structural trope of cinema that employs violence for an appropriated cause.
I think of this as the ”Tarantino vengeance fantasy”: You have a white male director/writer (in this case, Shepard) attempting to tell a hyper-fetishized tale of violent retribution on behalf of a marginalized group not his own. Stories like these set up a plot built around systemic violence — whether slavery, the Holocaust, or violent misogyny, to name a few. Then they posit that the remedy for that violence is a progression of deliberate, even gleeful acts of violence in return.
The problem with this model is that stories of revenge and overcoming abuse often look much different when they’re told by the people who’ve actually experienced abuse. All the Tarantino vengeance fantasy does is allow the white men who perpetuate these abuses to begin with to express their guilt. And they do so through a celebration of violence that ultimately just validates it as a tool of oppression.
So the rape revenge film fetishizes both the sexual violence itself and the male guilt surrounding that violence, turning the latter into a vehicle to celebrate yet more violence. Meanwhile, the stories of rape revenge films tend to use a bunch of other ridiculous sexist tropes, because of who’s usually telling them.
The Perfection is a fairly typical, unoriginal example of what a rape revenge fantasy looks like through a male gaze
In these kinds of films, the rapes in question always happen to a woman or a young girl. The women who are the victims of sexual violence are often young and fully sexualized. If they survive the assault, they then become impassioned and invigorated after the incident. Instead of battling through years of trauma and PTSD, they frequently transform into strong and empowered women because of their desire to enact violence upon their abusers.
In The Perfection, this pattern is put to the extreme. Both Charlotte’s and Lizzie’s queerness is heavily emphasized, and the first section of the film is intimately dedicated to the development of their steamy relationship. We’re never given the details about, or reasons for, Charlotte’s institutionalization — her release is evidently one of convenience, so that she may pursue her pathological, erratic course of vengeance. The other survivor, Lizzie, seems to have no ownership over her own experience of abuse and rape until Charlotte arrives to try to “save” her, even though the two women didn’t even know each other before this. (More on Lizzie in a second.)
In its final shot, the film reveals that Lizzie and Charlotte have finally achieved the titular “perfection” — the ability to craft a flawless musical performance — entirely because of the suffering and violence they individually endured in their vengeance quest against their rapist. The idea that surviving sexual assault inherently makes you stronger is a deeply problematic narrative trope, one that has been called out frequently by feminist critics. The implication is that sexual violence is some sort of rite of passage that a woman undergoes in order to become fully actualized and gain autonomy. Obviously, that’s completely untrue, but this trope recurs frequently in media, in part because the people telling stories of women overcoming sexual assaults are often, well, men. Again, it’s a story that doesn’t belong to the people most often telling it.
The Perfection asks us to take its emotional beats very seriously, but it doesn’t register as realistic on any level
It’s possible to craft a revenge film built around sexual violence where that violence isn’t used as a plot point en route to a bloodthirsty killing spree. The Perfection doesn’t manage that feat; in fact, it doesn’t even manage to frame the sexual violence itself in a way that feels well thought-out or respectful, rather than deliberately dramatic.
The conservatory director is clearly supposed to be reminiscent of former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar — a man with total power over his students and the complete trust of them and their parents, until he was brought down and eventually convicted in one of the biggest trials of the #MeToo movement. Anton’s students use the same language of having been “brainwashed” that Nassar’s victims, most of whom were teens and preteens, used in his trial.
But Nassar was able to get away with his abuse for decades in part because the actual acts of abuse were subtle, full of plausible deniability and designed to gaslight victims about whether they were really being assaulted. There’s nothing subtle about the way Anton is ultimately revealed to have been assaulting his victims — presumably also for decades, like his father before him. They’re forced to sit on a stage in a chair that doubles as a restraint device, where they’re then held down and brutally raped, in a rite that’s presented as a sort of demented religious act.
It’s hard to imagine this level of abuse going under the radar in the way the film asks us to accept, and its melodrama undermines the film’s emotional authenticity, which was already strained, to say the least. Another main reason the film can’t pull off a semblance of emotional and psychological realism is that Charlotte’s entire character arc is, at best, extremely over-the-top, and at worst reads like a troubling white power fantasy.
Over the course of the film, she drugs, abuses, and emotionally manipulates Lizzie, who is black, to convince a drugged-up, terrified Lizzie to chop off her own hand — obviously destroying her career and robbing her forever of the chance to play the instrument she loves.
Charlotte thinks all of this is in Lizzie’s best interest, and that losing her hand will help Lizzie realize that she was never a person to Anton, just a body and a tool for music. And in the end, not only is her ridiculous rationale proven right, but she’s met with adoring gratitude from Lizzie, who comes to accept the need for her own bodily mutilation and reconciles with Charlotte by the end of the film. It feels, in essence, like Lizzie has traded one form of brainwashing for another.
The Perfection seems to uncritically present Charlotte’s own repeated assaults on Lizzie as necessary to free her from the cycle of violence Anton has visited upon her over the years. But it’s hard to take its emotional journey seriously without considering how straight-up rapey and racist this part of the film is. Add to this the film’s final scene, which implies that physical impairment is a necessary part of the path to transcend to the “perfection,” and you’re left with a mess of themes that seem, at least to many critics, smart and well-executed but which unravel upon closer inspection.
So what are we to make of The Perfection? It’s easy to see why it’s a film people would want to love. It’s got lesbians! It’s got surreal twists and a psychological cat-and-mouse game reminiscent of a litany of better films, ranging from Black Swan to Suspiria to Possession (all films that had far gutsier things to say about women’s psyches and bodily autonomy)! And it wants to regurgitate the superficial beats of #MeToo — women finding new strength after enduring years of assault, a bad man with too much power and no one to hold him accountable, a “stronger together” motif — without actually interrogating the oppressive cultural underpinnings that begat the movement in the first place.
The film represents precisely the wrong #MeToo takeaways — but The Perfection has won enough fans that it probably won’t be the last faux-feminist horror film to exploit the very survivors it’s trying to uplift.
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