Piercing

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Christopher Abbott and Mia Wasikowska in Piercing
"Without a doubt, Pesce is one of the most exciting young directors to emerge in recent years." | Photo: Zachary Galler

Reed (Christopher Abbott) is obsessed with the idea of stabbing women. He may or may not have done it before; he's certainly brooded about it for a long time. Now the presence of a new baby at home has added to his stress levels, and although he seems calm on the outside, inside he's close to a full on psychotic break. He tells his wife that he's going out of town on business but in reality he's planning to murder a sex worker.

Watching Reed make preparations in his hotel room, you might well think that we've been here before. The meticulous murder of women in cinema and on television is something of an epidemic, even outside the horror genre. Yet as anyone who saw his first feature, The Eyes of My Mother, will know, nothing that director Nicolas Pesce does is by the book. It doesn't take long for this gorgeously photographed film to veer off in an unexpected direction, and from then on it's anybody's guess as to how it will end.

Copy picture

From the very start we can see that reality and fantasy are not going to be in easy alignment. Reed has thought about killing a woman but he's always objectified her; he hasn't understood the additional challenges of killing a person. Furthermore, we get the distinct impression that he's never hired a sex worker before. Like anyone in that situation, he's a little off balance, unsure what to say or how to move things forward. And she, of course, knows - or at least thinks she knows - exactly what she's doing. She's also so ridiculously sweet and personable that he has to work hard to keep himself on track. For a moment this plays out like a serial killer meeting a hooker with a heart of gold - until it doesn't.

Essentially a two hander, the film gives Mia Wasikowska her best role since Jane Eyre. It's one that might have won her serious notice if fair awards consideration were given to horror or erotica. Abbot doesn't have as much room to develop his character - his relative lack of depth is part of the point - but Pesce keeps the film well balanced between the two, and audience members who are not put off by the subject matter or his unflinching approach to violence will find their sympathies shifting throughout. Reed is, of course, a monster, and Pesce doesn't forgive him for that, but we also see him as a vulnerable human being. Wasikowska's character, Jackie, talks at every opportunity yet remains experience. Still, Pesce - drawing on Ryû Murakami's novel - never makes the mistake of presenting her as other - she is always, intensely, human too.

There is no doubt that people of a certain inclination will find this an intensely erotic film though it contains no explicit sexual acts and denies its audience the simple, ugly pay-off they might have expected based on its premise. It contains several acts which you should think carefully before trying at home. It's also quite deliberate in its titillation of cinephiles, moving from one exquisitely framed shot to another with almost languorous confidence. Perhaps it's the effect of Jackie's ice-blonde hair, but the shadow of Hitchcock is present throughout, in the long shots down the hotel corridor, in the close-ups as we try to figure out who's in control. The quirkiness of the animated panorama that opens the film (and recalls Mike Nichols' Working Girl in its suggestion of anonymity and ubiquity) lingers alongside this, making us all the more uncertain about our own emotional responses.

Without a doubt, Pesce is one of the most exciting young directors to emerge in recent years. Piercing proves that his stunning début was no mere flash in the pan, and though it's certainly not for everyone, this is a delicious piece of cinema.

Reviewed on: 10 Feb 2019
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Piercing packshot
In this twisted love story, a man seeks out an unsuspecting stranger to help him purge the dark torments of his past. His plan goes awry when he encounters a woman with plans of her own. A playful psycho-thriller game of cat-and-mouse.

Director: Nicolas Pesce

Writer: Nicolas Pesce, based on the novel by Ryû Murakami

Starring: Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Laia Costa, Wendell Pierce, Marin Ireland, Maria Dizzia, Dakota Lustick, Olivia Bond

Year: 2018

Runtime: 81 minutes

Country: US


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