Friday 21 June 2019

On demand: "Piercing"

Nicolas Pesce is the young American writer-director who, with help from chums Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Antônio Campos (Afterschool), made 2016's The Eyes of My Mother, a monochrome horror nightmare that had a certain formal rigour to commend it, but (as with many of the films to have emerged from the Durkin-Campos school) precious little blood running through its veins. (Had you plunged a knife into it, the film would have leaked formaldehyde and film theory.) Pesce's all-colour follow-up Piercing wears its quotation marks even more conspicuously, in part to mitigate against the horrendousness of the premise it yanks from Ryū Murakami's short story. After a retro "Our Feature Presentation" insert, and 70s-throwback opening credits (over gorgeous miniature work), we're sequestered for more or less the duration in a shag-carpeted hotel room to which morally rotten young father Reed (Christopher Abbott) - think Patrick Bateman with an extra five-to-ten years on him - has summoned sex worker Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) for the express purpose of tying her up and doing very bad things to her with an ice pick. To some extent, you can rest easy. It becomes very quickly clear that our damsel-in-potential-distress isn't just going to lie there and take it; equally, that there's nothing this whackjob dude can do that his intended victim isn't prepared to do to herself first. Nevertheless, it remains a little over an hour of nasty shocks: a pointed, spiky lesson on the subject of that we can and cannot control, up to and including the opposite sex.

Shooting on obvious sets leaves Piercing rather more secure in its tonal variations than its predecessor. There's a heavily ironised self-referentiality to this theatre of cruelty - as the sex worker gasps at one point, "it was like being in a movie, or the leading actress in some big romantic scene" - which keeps disconcerting reminders of reality at arm's length. Within this fascinatingly safe unsafe space, the actors are allowed to veer towards strange extremes, and to do so without entirely alienating any squares and normies looking on. Abbott - who quit HBO's Girls to do such remarkable work in 2015's James White - seems constantly to be squirming with the effort of keeping something unfathomably dark within; he's an actor of infinite clenches. Wasikowska, meanwhile, is busy leading us further down the rabbit hole than she ever did for Tim Burton, pushing her natural spaciness into bold new territory. This working girl's a walking curveball, and the best (and most reassuring) gag in the movie is that Abbott's brooding wretch and this airy blonde flibbertigibbet just aren't on one another's wavelengths; there can be no acceptance of death, because neither would-be killer nor prospective victim are on the same page (and if they are, they're speaking in incompatible tongues). The performances are so vividly insistent on this point that Pesce barely needs the splitscreen effect he reaches for at one crucial juncture: these two don't fit together, however the narrative and visuals configure them.

We might wonder whether Piercing stands as anything more than a joke, a Dahlian tale of the unexpected. We might also wonder whether, in Pesce, we have another Tarantino on our hands, unable to handle a single drop of sincere emotion, or deal with characters who don't seem to have walked out of some sleazy B-movie. (We might even wonder whether Pesce might be one of those indie bros who still takes that as a compliment.) Somewhere in the depths of Piercing - or in what passes for depth in Piercing - there lurks a very zeitgeisty idea about trauma, and the ways in which we come to terms with it. (That, I suspect, comes from Murakami's source material, rather than Pesce's treatment.) Yet while Pesce is prepared to push his violence to extremes, he's not ready to reach that emotionally deep just yet. Instead, he sniggers around this tale, and has a good deal of fun with it: the film rattles by inside 75 minutes (not, one should in fairness note, a Tarantinoid trait), refusing to let us off this deranged train of thought once we've committed to it, and thereafter tying us in knots that are both authentically twisted and generally fucked-up. It is, at bottom, nifty proof of that weird capacity the cinema retains for circumventing all our usual response patterns, and making us thrill to behaviour we'd find horrifying in broad daylight. If you're watching with polite company, you may want to have yourself a safe word ready.

Piercing is now streaming via Netflix.

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