Alternately alluring and repellent, Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing is designed to get under your skin. A tribute to Italian giallo movies, it has that genre’s love of texture and color and light, not to mention its fondness for eerily melodic, synth-drenched blasts of music. To those aesthetic properties, Piercing also brings a flair for irony straight out of romantic comedies. It’s a gorgeous meet-cute flick — it’s just that the two cuties meeting cutely happen to be two deeply twisted weirdos.
The first weirdo is Reed (Christopher Abbott), whom we are introduced to as he hesitantly holds an ice pick over his newborn baby. We then follow him as he prepares for a business trip and says good-bye to his wife and child. There’s clearly something wrong with this dude. The business trip is an excuse, apparently, to lure someone to his hotel room, tie them up, and chop them into pieces. We see Reed eagerly rehearsing in advance the moves he will use to subdue his quarry and then behead them. Then, he puts in a call to an escort service.
Have I mentioned that this film is a comedy?
Elsewhere, wary Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) wakes up in her apartment, and gets a call from her angry pimp. As she loads up her S&M equipment and heads over to her next appointment, we may start to cringe at what we suspect awaits her — but when she arrives at the fancy room Reed has rented for the night, the power dynamic suddenly shifts. He’s an awkward weakling, it turns out, and her mixture of confidence and friendliness immediately overpowers him.
What follows is a bizarre little back-and-forth in which Reed and Jackie dance around each other, as she both encourages and undoes his warped intentions. She seems to be indulging a few personal demons herself — though it’s not until late in the film that we realize how intense those demons are. It’s all certainly quite icky, but the surreal atmosphere, enhanced by director Pesce’s off-kilter compositions and eclectic musical choices, not to mention his occasional cutaways to obviously fake buildings outside, immerses us in a world that works somewhat differently than ours. Nevertheless, it resonates as a metaphor for the way that no relationship ever quite works out the way we expect it to.
Pesce’s previous film, The Eyes of My Mother, was also visually striking and unreal, but it conjured a completely different mood, of grim, shadowy stillness. That was a nightmare we couldn’t escape from. In this case, we’re not sure if what we’re watching is a nightmare or a dream. There’s something cozy and quaint, almost comforting, about the picture’s universe of sturdily elegant interiors and matchbox exteriors — and it all contrasts sharply with the demonic, destructive impulses of its characters. Piercing is an unnerving mix of loveliness and lunacy.