Netflix's twisty new thriller The Perfection, directed by Richard Shepard, stars Allison Williams and Logan Browning as two cello prodigies caught up in a dark tale of revenge - and one with a delightfully gruesome ending. Charlotte (Williams) was on the path to greatness when her music career was derailed by her mother falling ill and Charlotte going home to look after her. When her mother dies, ten years later, Charlotte contacts her old mentors Anton (Steven Weber) and Paloma (Alaina Huffman), and goes to Shanghai to meet their current star pupil, Elizabeth (Browning).
After a passionate night together, Charlotte joins Elizabeth on a planned road trip across the country - one that goes wrong when Elizabeth becomes increasingly ill, complaining of stomach problems and head pain and eventually suffering from hallucinations. It's revealed that Charlotte has been drugging Elizabeth with her late mother's medication, which is known to have an array of nasty side effects. This culminates in Elizabeth hallucinating that she has bugs crawling underneath the skin of her arm, and Charlotte handing her a meat cleaver and telling her that she needs to cut her hand off to get rid of them... which Elizabeth does.
However, that's not where the movie ends. In fact, that's just the first act. Elizabeth returns to the Bachoff Academy of Music three weeks later, one-handed and distraught, only to be told that she cannot stay by Anton and Paloma, since she can no longer play the cello. The furious Elizabeth goes to Charlotte's house in Minneapolis, uses a taser to subdue her, and brings her back to the Academy as an offering for Anton. From there, the horrible secret of The Perfection is revealed.
Why Charlotte Made Elizabeth Cut Off Her Hand
Though the twist that Charlotte is tricking Elizabeth into cutting off her hand is easy to see coming, the reasons behind it aren't what you would think. The audience (and Elizabeth) assumes that Charlotte was simply jealous of the younger rising star who came along to replace her at the exact time she left the Bach Academy to look after her sick mother. However, Charlotte's actual intent was to liberate Elizabeth from the abusive grasp of Anton Bachoff by ensuring that he would no longer have any use for her.
A new student, Zhang Li (Eileen Tian) is brought to the Academy and shown a special room called the Chapel, designed to be acoustically perfect, where only the most talented students are permitted to play. These students - Charlotte and Elizabeth included - are marked with a tattoo of a musical note on their shoulder, and when Charlotte saw Elizabeth's tattoo during the night they spent together, she knew that Elizabeth had been subjected to the same horrible abuse that she had.
Students who play in the Chapel are expected to achieve "The Perfection," playing a cello piece with absolutely no mistakes. If they do make any mistakes, they are held in place by chains and raped by Anton and the other instructors, Theis (Mark Kandborg) and Geoffrey (Graeme Duffy). Through this torture, students are compelled to strive ever harder for perfection in order to avoid the torture of sexual abuse that punishes them for failing. Charlotte was freed from this horrifying situation when her mother fell ill, but spent time in mental institutions receiving electro-shock therapy, and at one point attempted suicide.
As the Bachoff Academy's star pupil, Elizabeth is suffering from a form of Stockholm Syndrome wherein she believes that the rape inflicted on her is for her own good, helping her to become the best cellist in the world. Charlotte tricks her into cutting off her hand in order to break the illusion and prove that Anton doesn't really care about her at all - and ultimately, this plan works.
The Perfection Turns the Tables on Anton
In her efforts to save Elizabeth from Anton's clutches, Charlotte ends up right back in them: forced to play in the Chapel, with Anton threatening to rape Zhang Li if she makes any mistakes. Towards the end of her cello piece, Charlotte does make a mistake, but Anton sends Zhang Li to bed, mocking Charlotte for believing that he would punish a new student instead of her. Anton leaves Charlotte to the mercy of Theis and Geoffrey, but Elizabeth says that she wants to have the first "turn," preparing to rape Charlotte with the stump of her arm.
Just as The Perfection is about to get even darker, however, Theis and Geoffrey start to choke and then collapse to the floor, and Elizabeth and Charlotte smile at each other and kiss. A flashback reveals that, after Elizabeth attacked Charlotte at her home, Charlotte was able to convince her that cutting off her hand was for her own good, and that what was down to them at the Bachoff Academy was simply rape, not some kind of genius teaching technique. Charlotte and Elizabeth then plotted the downfall of the Bachoff Academy together, starting with Elizabeth poisoning Theis and Geoffrey's drinks.
Paloma is the next to die. She staggers into Anton's office with a knife in her back and collapses. Elizabeth and Charlotte attack Anton but he manages to overpower them and stabs Charlotte brutally, dragging the knife down through her left forearm. Before he can kill her, however, Elizabeth brutally beats him into submission with a poker.
In the movie's final scene, Anton is sat in the Chapel with his arms and legs cut off, his eyes and mouth sewn shut, being fed through a tube in his nose. Charlotte and Elizabeth walk onto the stage, Elizabeth still with her right hand removed, and Charlotte now with her left arm amputated as a result of Anton stabbing her. They take a seat behind the cello and begin to play together as a unit - Elizabeth's hand on the strings, and Charlotte using the bow.
The Real Meaning of The Perfection's Ending
After Elizabeth beats Anton with the poker, and just before the final scene of The Perfection, there's the final instance of a recurring flashback to Charlotte as a child, running across the lawn and away from the Academy. It's made clear throughout the movie that although Charlotte got away from Anton's clutches as a child, she was never really free, since the last thing she saw before leaving was a new victim taking her place. Her spells in a mental institution and her suicide attempt failed to liberate her, but after reading an article about Elizabeth, Charlotte realized that the only way she could free herself was by saving Elizabeth from Anton first.
It's also indicated at the start of the movie that Elizabeth was already looking for a way out, though not necessarily consciously. When she tells Charlotte about her plans to take a trip across China, she says that she wants to get "as far away from first class as possible" and "unplug from everything and everyone." Shortly afterwards, when Elizabeth comments on how different they are, Charlotte replies, "We're more alike than it may seem." The camera closes in on the tattoo on her shoulder, making it clear that this is a reference to them both being Anton's "special" students, but in hindsight it also means that both of them were trying to break free from Anton in their own way.
With the Academy's tutors dead and Anton rendered helpless, Charlotte, Elizabeth, and the other students are finally free - and Charlotte and Elizabeth are finally able to achieve "The Perfection" by playing the cello together (hence the movie's final chapter title, "Duet"). Despite Anton's years of trying to achieve perfection through fear, torture, and punishment, true perfection only comes through the union of Charlotte and Elizabeth - first in taking down the Academy, and then by playing the cello together.