Director: Nicolas Pesce
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Christopher Abbott, Laia Costa
I remember reading Ryu Murakami’s Audition in the hopes of decoding some of the more surreal occurences in Takashi Miike’s masterful adaptation and being struck by the direct voice apparent in the translation. Favouring this, I also read Piercing; a novella that similarly popped off the page, and I could well imagine the motion picture it could become. Flash forward a decade and here we are. Nicolas Pesce follows his arty and macabre debut The Eyes Of My Mother with said adaptation, and it is both a faithful and frustrating experience.
Christopher Abbott plays a man (named in the credits as Reed, but this is never vocalised) well aware of his own disturbing psychopathology. The film begins with him standing over his newborn baby, wielding an ice pick, filled with the desire to use it. Reed instead starts scheming elaborately to murder a prostitute in an effort to deflect his sick tendencies from being actualised in the family home.
This is all about fetishising control of a fantasy situation for Reed. He enjoys the process of turning murder into a project. He makes a meticulous journal. He rehearses (Pesce has the foley department add gleefully wet and juicy sound effects to Abbott’s mimes). In terms of form, Pesce compliments this obsessiveness with clean, orderly frames. He sets his film in a series of pristine rooms, and sets these rooms within a series of delightfully retro miniature tower blocks. This isn’t the only retro concession. The film opens with logos distressed as though we’re watching an old videotape, while the entire soundtrack (more or less) is sourced from Italian giallo films. This mishmash of stylistic nostalgia makes Piercing look and sound delicious, true, but its a rather confused collage of references that don’t always cohere.
Reed’s plan, slavishly ordered, goes off course immediately when, on impulse, he moves his schedule up and so is delivered a different ‘girl’. Enter Mia Wasikowska’s prostitute (named in the credits as Jackie, but this is never vocalised either). With his fantasy made flesh, things go quickly awry for Reed. Indeed, much of Piercing is about the difference between fantasy and reality, and subverting unhealthy male desires. When Jackie expresses her own agency, it emasculates Reed. He loses confidence, becomes nervous, apologetic and concerned. Confronted with a real person instead of an abstract desire, he loses the ability to function.
When Jackie savagely self-harms in the hotel bathroom, he takes her to the hospital. From here, a further male dream unfurls; the Pretty Woman fantasy. Reed has the opportunity to become involved with a sexually confident yet vulnerable woman who is emotionally available for him, and him alone. But again, this is confounded. Jackie appears to be at least as well off as Reed (living in an apartment that seems to have emerged from a David Lynch dream; all reds, blacks, lamps and coffee). What’s more she becomes the aggressor, drugging him and brutalising him with a tin opener.
Fun as it is to see Reed’s misogynistic fantasies thwarted (and good as both Abbott and Wasikowska are), Pesce runs thin on material. Piercing comes in at a brisk 81 minutes (75 once you lop off the credits at either end). Miike-esque nods to childhood traumas and outré weirdness are too brief; they feel hollow and sketchy, little more than token additions to increase the perversity and Pesce’s credo. Ultimately, this is a study of two profoundly damaged individuals who come to communicate with one another almost exclusively through violent means. It’s a warped kind of romance, for sure, but the ultra-stylised elements surrounding the couple never quite allow them to feel genuine. The whole of Piercing appears to take place within a set of accentuated quotation marks. This makes it slick and strange, but leaves little emotional impact.
Still, taken at face value its a fun enough roll in the muck, and as Pesce’s full colour debut, it suggests a very giving aestheticist is only just warming up.