To watch The Perfection, which made its debut today on Netflix, is to see a quilt of co-writer and director Richard Shepard’s influences. There are the grindhouse movies he grew up watching on 42nd Street in New York City, where he soaked in every reel he could get in front of. There are the exquisitely executed South Korean revenge films (particularly the domestically disturbed offerings of Park Chan-wook), and the high-class pulp of early Brian De Palma, all stitched together with motifs of his own work. Shepard has most famously directed numerous episodes of Girls, including the highlights “American Bitch” and “The Panic in Central Park,” both of which feel like vignettes that devolve into nightmares and feature women pushing back against toxic men. The Perfection, in all its disturbed and thrilling and titillating glory, is an amalgamation of those interests — Shepard’s shot at The Handmaiden, but with a dirty syringe of American genre sensibility injected straight into the mainline.
From 30,000 feet, the plot is simple(ish). A once-elite cellist named Charlotte (Allison Williams) emerges after a decade of caring for her dying mother to reconnect with her old instructor, Anton (Steven Weber), at which point she meets the prodigy who succeeded her, the beguiling Lizzie (Logan Browning). Charlotte is clearly running a game, but we don’t know why. She and Lizzie begin as rivals but quickly become lovers and then adversaries, then allies in a quest for revenge. The movie’s first hour is packed with wild body horror, an erotic cello duet, and multiple Funny Games–esque twists that will leave you gobsmacked. But the true wonder of The Perfection comes at the end.
The film’s biggest reveal, that Anton is a pedophile and a sociopath, flings viewers into the finale stretch of the story. With Charlotte finally back in the conservatory for the first time in a decade, the audience is at last let in on her game. Through whatever means necessary, she set out to separate Lizzie from Anton and bring a reckoning upon him for sexually abusing her and every other elite student who had come under his care. To reach “the perfection” in performance, he explains in a flashback scene, is to become closer to God. As the arbiter of perfection — and therefore a kind of self-styled holy surrogate — it’s Anton’s prerogative, and even duty, to break his students down so completely that their survival depends on his satisfaction. At his family-run Bachoff Academy of Music, that means a generations-long “tradition” of systematic child rape.
To unpack The Perfection’s go-for-broke ending, Vulture spoke with its director and stars about the confetti canon of kink, depravity, and cultural commentary in its closing scenes.
Raise the Stakes
The final act of The Perfection opens on Charlotte in Anton’s most sacred space, the Chapel, which we know from earlier in the film is where precious few students have the honor of performing. It’s also where Anton and his lackeys administer their most terrible punishments. We see Charlotte backlit by an almost Byzantine halo of gold light before cutting to the movie’s most succinctly powerful image: a woman’s feet in Jimmy Choo heels, locked to the floor with gold chains and surrounded by the drape of a lush red gown. “I knew the second we lined up the shot that it was gorgeous,” says Shepard. “It’s very kinky, and I thought it was telling about the world that they lived in and ‘the perfection’ that was needed. It also says a lot that they don’t see her feet, because her dress covers them. In their minds, she’s willingly performing for them.”
Viewers, however, see a beautiful woman in a beautiful room, shackled to the floor, instructed by men to put on a show for them — or else. In the Chapel, Charlotte is tasked with performing both a feminine ideal as well as a composition. Charlotte’s body belongs to them and exists to serve a purportedly higher purpose, but her mind is her own and she’s keeping a secret: She and Lizzie are actually in cahoots. And that’s the big trick of the scene. Neither the monsters in the room nor the audience watching is yet aware of the fact that the two have conspired to kill their attackers, and this whole sick show is going (mostly) according to plan. That means Williams is also giving two performances: one as a victim fighting back years of PTSD to survive the moment, and another as a co-conspirator who is plotting bloody revenge.
“It’s triggering, obviously. This was the location of the greatest traumas of her entire life, so she is putting herself back there in order to make things right in her moral universe,” Williams says of the Chapel scene. “She is both in control and fighting that feeling that keeps coming up in waves, that she’s out of control and she’s a little girl again and she’s totally vulnerable. And yet Charlotte and Lizzie have the upper hand. She now has an ally in the room, whereas before she never did.”
Shepard wanted to design a pristine setting for the scene, a place that belied the horrors taking place within and whose name alluded to secrecy, cover-ups, and abuse. He drew inspiration from the scandal-sieged Catholic Church. A line Lizzie recites at the start of the movie becomes a cultlike refrain in the Chapel scene: “It’s what’s expected of us.” Charlotte, of course, fails to deliver what is expected, and Anton turns her over to his silent assistants, Theus and Jeffrey, to have at her first while he waits elsewhere for her to “stop biting.” Her chair is rigged to tilt back and her wrists have been bound by an apparatus that raises her arms, effectively serving her up. But before her assailants can get their pants off, the men collapse dead on the ground — thanks to the poison Lizzie slipped in their drinks. The two kiss passionately, and their path to Anton is clear.
Bring in the Avenging Angels
Lizzie and Charlotte then greet Anton in his bedroom by dropping his dead wife through the doorway. Costume designer Beverley Huynh, who supervised the creation of the intricately hand-painted gowns both women wear at earlier moments in the film, dressed them in gray sweats for the scene. As they enter his room, Anton’s peaceful instrumental music transforms into pounding hip-hop; this house belongs to them now.
Anton begs for mercy as Lizzie, brandishing a meat cleaver, lunges for him. Here, Shepard makes a crucial editorial choice. Instead of following the action, the point of view switches to a camera that was shoulder-mounted onto Williams, giving us only a tight shot of her face. Charlotte’s resolve turns to paralysis and the sounds of struggle become white noise. As satisfying as revenge narratives are, they tend to skip over payback’s complicated nature in the moment it’s administered. The emotional toll of being sexually abused is what brought Charlotte and Lizzie to this moment, and Shepard chose to give their stream of thought priority over more conventional action. It’s a decision that, when considered alongside the wave of modern rape-revenge films like Revenge and MFA and Cold Hell, puts the progress of horror’s most problematic subgenre in stark relief.
“The goal was to watch someone who’s leaving and then returning to her body multiple times,” Williams says of the scene. “It’s both I get to make it right and also Oh my God. I’m in this house. I’m back in this school. The guy is right here. This is horrifying. The terror of those two things fighting each other is an epic battle in that moment. It’s losing some of the most traditional shots of a scene like that, like Lizzie’s first contact with the blade, in the interest of showing what it is like to bear witness to it. She has been stuck like a record in its groove for her entire life, and she is watching that get undone. It’s messy and it’s painful. She hopes it will be triumphant, but it’s also scarier and more real than she ever imagined.”
Of his choice to alter the viewer’s POV, the director says, “I wanted to be with Charlotte at this moment where all her life she has been suffocated and ruined by what this man did to her, and now she has her life back. It’s a new life. It’s a twisted life, but it’s back. It’s hers, and she owns it.”
An important result of Charlotte freezing is Lizzie having to shoulder the action in the scene. Shepard says he was “colorblind casting” for the role of Lizzie, but after Browning got the part, he knew the power dynamics of race and gender would have to be considered differently; Williams, Browning, and the director never wanted The Perfection to become some creepy white-savior story. When Charlotte snaps back into consciousness, she lands a blow on Anton, but he recovers and rips through her arm with a knife. That’s when Lizzie rises as the conquering hero, wielding a fire iron that she brings down hard onto his body. Still, we see the faces of the two heroines screaming in triumph instead of metal ripping through his skin.
“When they tested the film, one of the things that people were responding to was, ‘Where’s her revenge?’ and ‘Where’s her full arc?’” Browning explains. “I think I was a bit naïve when it came to the possibilities of what seeing a girl like me in this role could mean to other people, but it’s actually a refreshing thought. I’ll probably never forget how cathartic it felt to play the badass moments. I felt like kind of a superhero in the sense of fighting back for times that I had been wronged, and also for everyone in this world who had been wronged and who had these experiences.”
Happily Ever After — Kind Of
The final shot of the movie works as a kind of epilogue. We cut back to the Chapel, where a chair and cello have been placed. As the camera slowly pans down, we see the back of a man’s head and an IV bag set up next to him. It’s Anton, and he faces the stage as Lizzie and Charlotte enter. When he is finally shown, we see he’s been literally cut down to a series of crudely sewn-up stumps attached to a torso. His eyes and mouth have been stitched shut, with a feeding tube run up his nose. What’s left of his appendages moves slightly as his breathing causes his muscles to softly convulse. The earlier knife attack resulted in Charlotte losing her left arm, and since Lizzie had already lost her right one, they wrap around the cello and each other to play the instrument together. It’s a visual that came about during rehearsal one day and was so “sick and weird” that the director had to work it in.
The after-effects of violence take precedence onscreen rather than the violence itself. We see the scars on the victims without the gory details of how they got there, which makes Anton’s grotesque half-body even more jarring. You think you’ve actually seen more gore than was ever really presented to you, leaving you utterly unprepared — and perversely pleased. “When we tested the movie, the financier was like, ‘Do you need that last scene?’ And I’m like, this is why I made the movie,” says Shepard. “I need to see Steven Weber decimated, and at the same time, they’re playing for him? It’s fucking twisted! They’re feeding him and cleaning him, but they’ve also tortured him and they’re living their life. This is their life, and it’s not a happy ending. It’s not a sad ending, but it’s a victory.”