Piercing (2018)

Piercing first published by Sight & Sound, April 2019

Review: Takashi Miike’s astonishing Audition (1999), adapted from the 1997 novel of Ryu Murakami, helped introduce Western audiences to both J-horror and ‘torture porn’, without ever really sitting easily in either of those categories. Now Piercing, adapted from the homonymous 1994 novel by Murakami, similarly gouges beneath its own surface sheen to mine a strong seam of sadomasochistic psychodrama, cutting right to the heart of the disappointments and deferrals of desire in human relations. 

Young architect Reed (Christopher Abbott) seems to have it all: a perfect wife Mona (Laia Costa) and a perfect infant daughter, in their perfect apartment. Yet when we first see Reed, he is poised with an ice pick over the baby. Realising that, in order not to make a mess of everything he has, he must go elsewhere to get his dark urges out of his system, Reed meticulously plots to lure a prostitute to a hotel room, to murder her bloodily, and then to return to his life and family. Yet Jackie (Mia Wasikowksa), the BDSM call girl who visits his room, comes with problems and needs of her own, as well as a penetrating professional intuition for negotiating what her client really wants and which ingredients will best deliver it. The long night that ensues, with its confusion of deluded fantasy, untidy reality and disorienting hallucination, is a journey deep into Reed’s scarred, yearning psyche. 

As with Nicolas Pesce’s debut The Eyes of My Mother (2016), Piercing boasts a protagonist haunted by traumatic mummy issues, glimpsed in drug-induced flashbacks that also reveal his fixations with rubber and bondage and his absolute terror of dirt. Reed is immediately recognised as a ‘neat freak’ by Jackie, and even his dry-run rehearsals of bloody dismemberment (mimed out to impossibly realistic sound effects, like the tennis match at the end of Antonioni’s 1966 Blow-Up) are dominated by acts of cleaning, while his trippy nightmares see him literally overwhelmed by bathroom sewage. “It’s ok to make a mess,” Jackie says, reassuring Reed that the high-quality silk of her bedsheets is there to be sullied. Piercing, too, is a film whose slick, shimmering surfaces are ruffled and messed by Pesce’s unpredictable narrative deviations, as the misogynistic, highly disciplined Reed gradually cedes control to someone as unhinged as himself. 

The building exteriors are Wes Anderson-like models, revealing Reed’s story to be just one in a whole city of endless rooms and lives, while also suggesting, through their overtly artificial construction, that we are not travelling through real locations, but through the compartmentalised cells of an architect’s unravelling mind. The film’s score, a magpie mix of tracks from various gialli, confirms our suspicion that Piercing is (from its opening zoom into an apartment window) an urban renewal of Psycho (1960) – but in fact, with its observation of the power shifts between a seemingly dominant man and a submissive woman, and with its final line’s focus on the couple’s shared appetites (“Can we eat first?”), Pesce’s film also plays out like a sharp recut of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017).

Synopsis: New York City, maybe the 1970s or 1980s. Terrified he may act upon murderous thoughts about his baby daughter, Reed plots to get these out of his system by killing a prostitute instead. Telling his wife Mona that he is going on a business trip, Reed checks into a hotel, lays out his tools, and rehearses the crime. BDSM call girl Jackie arrives, and asks if she can take a shower. Impatient, Reed goes into the bathroom, only to find Jackie stabbing herself in the leg with scissors. When he tries to stop her, she bites hard into his hand. Reed takes Jackie to the hospital, and waits for her outside, imagining a phone call in which Mona eggs him on to kill Jackie. 

When Jackie, now bandaged, comes out, Reed takes her to her own apartment. He is about to tie her up, when Jackie suggests they eat first. Jackie drugs his food, and beats him with a tin opener, seriously scarring his face. Paralysed on the floor, Reed half-hallucinates half-remembers seeing his mother having sex with a man dressed in bondage gear, and himself stabbing a woman in the belly. Meanwhile Jackie finds Reed’s handwritten murder plans. Reed wakes the next morning, bound and gagged. Jackie is piercing her nipple, “to remember this.”  She is about to stab a not unwilling Reed in the belly with his icepick, when he proposes eating first.

© Anton Bitel