Bob's Cinema Diary: 5/24/19 Photograph and The Perfection
In weeks when there are more movies than any one person should see, I often use this format to speak briefly about movies that deserve attention.
There's nothing extraordinary about the Indian movie Photograph and that's what makes the movie interesting. Director Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox) tells a conventional love story involving two protagonists who, according to the social order the film makes apparent, have no business being together. Rafi (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is a villager who's scuffling to get by as a street photographer in Mumbai. Meloni (Sanya Malhotra) is an accounting student from a family that seems solidly embedded in Mumbai's middle class. To make this kind of romance about a mismatched duo requires a fair measure of contrivance. Meloni encounters Rafi in the street. He takes her picture. She runs off, leaving him holding the photograph. Rafi puts the photograph to use when he attempts to persuade his no-nonsense grandmother (a scene-stealing Farrukh Jaffar) that he's finally found the woman who will give her grandchildren. When Grandma travels to Mumbai to meet Rafi's supposed fiancee, Rafi must locate Meloni and then persuade her to go along with the ruse. He does both. Plausibility isn't really the point here. In a quiet, unassuming way, Batra explores class, as well as religious and racial differences. You won't find explosive scenes or showy performances, but the Mumbai settings and the gap between Rafi and Meloni, neither entirely sure that it can be bridged, says a lot about two people whose chance meeting brings divergent worlds into contact.
This Netflix release begins promisingly. We meet a gifted cellist (Allison Williams) who has given up her career to tend to her sick mother, just deceased when the film begins. Williams' now-free Charlotte is invited by her former mentor Anton (Steven Weber) to attend a cello competition in Shanghai. There, she meets Elizabeth (Logan Browning), Anton's latest major discovery. We suspect jealousy will blossom, but the movie throws up a smoke screen when Charlotte and Elizabeth wind up in bed together and then agree to take an unescorted bus trip through the "real" China. A lesbian romance? A story about two talented and competitive women who have lived in a strangely insular environment where nothing mattered but the cello? Director Richard Shepard (The Matador) has something else in mind: The Perfection shifts gears, becoming a slick horror film with twisted undertones leading to torture and sexual abuse. There's talent on display here, but it's put to the service of a story that abandons its more subtle interests for in-your-face shocks. For me at least, the movie's high-impact jolts weren't compensated for by its sharp stylistic edges. For a minute, I thought about whether The Perfection was trying to show that the worst kind of rot can fester in a world ostensibly devoted to lovely music. Nah, I decided. The Perfection seems more interested in filling screens with wince-inducing moments than in establishing a plausible environment in which the pressures of ferocious competition and dictatorial instruction really could be explored.