From the moment the pulpy header introduces Nicolas Pesce’s twisted erotic thriller/romantic-comedy (???) Piercing, it’s clear he’s working in very different territory than his psychotic black & white horror, The Eyes of My Mother. But you’ll find his followup is no less twisted, albeit in a way that cuts like a knife in exploring the sadomasochistic pleasures of one seemingly straight-laced man and a woman who is far more than she appears to be.
That Piercing is based on a novel by Ryu Murakami should be a clue to the depths of depravity this film is going to go. Murakami was the author who wrote Audition, which was adapted into a classic example of early “torture porn” by Takashi Miike. And like that story, Piercing begins with a man who is missing something out of life. Only in the case of Reid (Christopher Abbott), he’s in search of an outlet for his violent urges. A new father, we see him hovering over his child’s crib, gripping an icepick almost lovingly. When baby suddenly booms “You know what to do”, Reid is less startle by it than the realization that the child is right. He must put these dark energies elsewhere. He tells his wife (a sadly under-utilized Laia Costa) that he’s going away on a business trip, but his actual plans are more sinister. Let’s just say those aren’t documents in his briefcase.
Employing heavy doses of humor to break the giallo-inspired tension, Pesce walks us through Reed’s murder routine. He checks into a swanky hotel, dials up an escort service and while waiting for her to arrive, begins comically testing out his strategies. Reed looks like an amateur, and maybe he is, but he’s just gung-ho enough that we think he might not be. No matter, because he gets more than he bargained for from Jackie (a mercurial Mia Wasikowska), an apparent innocent with a slightly odd streak. She throws him completely offguard, her frank openness towards S&M clashes with her naïve appearance. At every turn, his best laid plans for violence are undercut by her unpredictable behavior; sometimes she’s incredibly cruel, other times her desires are distinctly human and sweet.
What unfolds in Pesce’s brisk nail-biter is a psycho-sexual power play in which the roles of victim and hunter constantly shift. From one moment to the next it’s hard to see who has the upper hand, and who exactly is the more insane person in the room. Jackie’s tough to get a handle on, and that’s a conscious choice by Pesce who presents most of the action from Reed’s perspective. As games of sex and violence escalate, the outcome is always in doubt. While Pesce’s use of music and color palette do suggest classic sexploitation films, Piercing isn’t so easy to tie down. By keeping both characters at an emotional distance, we’re left to contemplate their actions rather than their words. Suffice it to say their actions are pretty fucked up, both to one another and to themselves. As grim humor mixes with the bloodflow, Piercing has us thinking that maybe these two psychos were meant to be, and this was just a perverted love story all along.