I make no secret that I dislike Nicolas Pesce’s debut, The Eyes of My Mother. It’s a lovely film to look at, but the script feels like a bunch of bros sitting around pounding beers, trying to one-up each other with “the most messed up thing” they can think of and it rings like hollow attempts to shock with no weight behind them. But it does show Pesce’ skills as a visual storyteller and my initial reaction was, “If he ever gets a good script…” While his follow-up, Piercing, doesn’t quite fulfill his potential, it’s at least a step in that direction.
If Eyes was Pesce’s attempt at twisted black and white gothic horror, Piercing, which adapts Ryu Murakami’s novel of the same name, is his stab at a psychosexual giallo. With lush, warm, lived-in colors, split screens, and even Goblin songs lifted from Dario Argento’s Tenebrae, it hits all the markers, mimicking the style and aesthetic almost perfectly. (Also, one of the actors, Laia Costa, is a dead ringer for frequent Argento star Jessica Harper.)
Christopher Abbott plays Reed, a fastidious architect in the midst of a sweaty existential breakdown. (Abbott’s characters always look like they’re mid-sweaty existential breakdown.) One night, he leaves his wife (Costa) and infant child to execute his elaborate plan of killing an unsuspecting prostitute, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), who may be more keen than the daffy train wreck she initially presents. But things don’t go according to plan, the tables turn, and questions of who’s really in control bubble up.
What follows attempts to examine obsession, self-destruction, lurid eroticism, voyeuristic tendencies, murderous impulses, power dynamics, violence inherent in gendered interactions, and more. Like a twisted fever dream of clashing intentions, surreal embellishments, and bleak comedy that warns be careful what you wish for.
There are intriguing ideas worth exploration, but…shrug, it never actually plumbs any sort of depths. It’s all sizzle, no steak; the shallowest depictions of psychopathy, delusion, and violence. Piercing has clever flashes, but it flaunts them with ostentatious flourishes—it’s not enough to be clever, it has to draw the viewer’s attention to how delightfully devilish it is. It can’t help screaming, “Look at me, look at me, see how witty I am”; more concerned with looking smart than being smart.
Gory and gorgeous, Pesce has the visual side on lockdown in Piercing, and though the brisk 82-minute runtime never dawdles, the whole remains vapid. The film puts beautiful wrapping on an empty box—granted, you can level the same claim against many giallos. It apes the intended style almost flawlessly, but never fully justified the whys behind the aesthetics, and prefers slick, surface level thrills and twists to actual insight. (I can’t help but be curious about Pesce’s next film, Grudge, a reboot of an American remake of a J-horror franchise, a subgenre with another distinct visual style.)
Piercing frustrates me because there’s so much potential and technical acumen on display, but it’s more a polished demo reel than a satisfying narrative. Though it represents progression, I continue to hope Pesce puts his hands on a script with more substance. [Grade: C]