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Simon Read [Celluloid 07.19.18] thriller drama

Piercing is a totally loopy bizarro black comedy thriller from writer/director Nicolas Pesce, based on the novel by Ryu Murakami. It concerns a man named Reed (Christopher Abbott) who wishes to commit a murder. With this in mind, he books a hotel room and hires an escort for the night, intending to satisfy his craving by killing her. Things don’t go according to plan.

The escort girl, named Jackie (and played by Mia Wasikowska), turns out to be just as insane as Reed, perhaps more so, and together this twisted pair engage in a curious, unpredictable and violent battle of the sexes. As they inflict pain and injury both on one another and on themselves, the film turns into a kind of absurdist BDSM black comedy. But to what end? Well, it’s not always entirely obvious...

Reed suffers flashbacks to his childhood, and we sense a trauma there. Jackie’s motives are even less clear, but she’s most definitely disturbed. Much of the time the film plays to the humour of their situation, as when we watch Reed ‘practice’ killing by miming the murder before Jackie arrives, followed by the stilted awkwardness of their initial introductions, where it becomes apparent that Reed is in way over his head with this strange girl.

As the action shifts from Reed’s hotel to Jackie’s apartment, the tone also shifts and the film becomes darker by degrees. It never becomes truly torturous or unpleasant, merely increasingly unhinged.

For the look of the film Pesce has taken inspiration from 1970s giallo films and early Brian De Palma (and by extension Hitchcock) with extensive use of spit-screen techniques and a general air of '70s Euro-madness. The interiors and the lighting are immaculate and stylish, while the exteriors are made from beautifully crafted scale model buildings which the camera adoringly climbs around in smooth pans and zooms.

Piercing has an agreeably cool and stylish feel to it, the funky retro-inspired soundtrack evoking some long-forgotten B-movie discovered in the back of the horror section. Technically-speaking, the film is very well made.

Two tunes by Goblin from old Dario Argento movies are used here - the themes from Profondo Rosso and Tenebrae (as well as some other giallo-sourced music) - and this rather sets the tone.
Piercing is a film which is not afraid to smash-cut to a vintage rotodial phone as it suddenly starts ringing. It will happily provide a shot of some spinning vinyl skipping on a turntable. It’s all about style, dark humour and weirdness, very much part of the current trend for neo-gialli.

The main question of course is whether or not all this adroit window-dressing actually works to make a decent film, or whether the whole enterprise buckles under the weight of its own eccentricity.
For the most part, I'm happy to say, Piercing is altogether very entertaining.

At 80 minutes it is wisely kept short and sweet, and while some explanation for the characters’ behaviour would have been welcome (there is very little in the way of ‘motivation’, ‘story’ or ‘plot’ here), that the film is made without compromising to its audience is perhaps a strong point.

Some will accuse Piercing of wretched excess or simple bad taste (the film’s opening shot is deeply disturbing and flirts with outright offensiveness), but it is directed without apology, and during certain scenes, during my screening, you could hear a pin drop.

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