Piercing. 2019. Directed & Written by Nicolas Pesce. Based on the novel by Ryû Murakami.
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Christopher Abbott, Laia Costa, Olivia Bond, Maria Dizzia, & Marin Ireland.
Memento Films International / BorderLine Films
Rated R. 81 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★★★1/2
screenshot2019-01-11at12.07.58pmThere have been a few Ryû Murakami novels adapted to screen, though it’d be hard to say any of them are more disturbing than Takashi Miike’s film Audition (1999). Nevertheless, Nicolas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother) has written and directed an adaptation of, arguably, one of Murakami’s best works: Piercing. This film and Audition share some connective tissue in that they each depict horrific, albeit wildly different aspects of interpersonal relationships. Miike’s film was like a cautionary tale about dating strangers, among other themes. Pesce’s film isn’t a cautionary tale, it’s more an exploration of the thin line between pain and pleasure— how BDSM and its consent can disappear between two people pushing their physical/mental limits and devolve into something terrifying depending on who’s seeking pain and why it gives them pleasure.
Piercing involves two characters Reed (Christopher Abbott) – a young husband and new father with a host of sexually disturbed issues – and Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) – a sex worker, whose main relief from existential pain is to inflict physical pain upon herself – who meet in a hotel room for an anonymous encounter. What ensues is a battle of will, while Reed and Jackie are locked in a sadomasochistic struggle that reveals glaring differences between men and women.
screenshot2019-01-11at12.59.50pmSomething Pesce does early on, and continues to do during choice moments throughout, is show a division between people in the city. The vast sprawl of urbanism has transformed human relationships. No longer do people co-exist as they did once, or as they do in smaller communities. People in the modern city are divided, disconnected, and filled with discontent due to isolation. A line from Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay for Seven describes this contemporary feeling well: “Wanting people to listen, you cant just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then youll notice youve got their strict attention.”
Zack Galler’s camerawork captures shots of near endless windows spanning several apartment buildings until we wind up in Reed’s apartment. Similar shots turn up later, too. These illustrate how the city divides us from others, and also within ourselves— how we compartmentalise the worst parts of ourselves like the apartments divided into sections, barely distinguishable from one to the next, like Reed’s self, divided between a seemingly normal life as a husband and father, and his hidden, hideous side as an animal preying on marginalised women.
Although there’s a BDSM element in this film – coming out of the initial reason behind Reed and Jackie meeting in the hotel room – the biggest theme is how cycles of abuse are perpetuated by misogynist men. We’ll come back to the BDSM later when discussing Jackie’s character. First, Reed is the focal point of the story, and before we ever meet Jackie we’re steeped in the brutality of his worldview. He’s not satisfied at home with a wife and child— he stands over his baby’s crib with an ice pick trying not to murder her. The baby is a symbol to Reed, representative of all those fatherly obligations he sees as restriction in his life. His own apartment is pictured like a jail cell: one shot shows an image of Reed standing in his window, the curtains taking on the visual of bars in a jail cell confining him to domestic life.
More importantly, Reed’s wife Mona (Laia Costa) gets reduced to a psychological key that helps him rationalise his male desire. He hears her over the phone, in a manifestation of ego, telling him (re: Jackie): “I think shes okay with it.” The wife urges him on, giving him permission to indulge in his horrific desire. This is reflected, and reinforced, by another phone call at the hotel again urging him on to kill. Reed’s entire existence is male entitlement. These voices, whether his wife or an unknown person from the hotel’s front desk, are merely the misogynist ego pleading to be satisfied.
A fantastically disturbing scene explores this psychosis. Pesce depicts Reed doing a dry practise run for his potential murder, complete with surreal sound effects such as blood draining from an imaginary body, set to “The Girl from Ipanema” (originally written by musician Antônio Carlos Jobim and poet Vinicius de Moraes). The song’s about a beautiful, desirable young lady walking near the beach. Piercing subverts it into a song about the approach of prey, the perfect victim, in the eyes of a misogynistic beholder.
screenshot2019-01-11at12.07.30pm

“Want me to do this to you?”
“Don’t you want to do it to me?”

screenshot2019-01-11at1.16.59pmMisogynistic, murderous need in Reed – a decidedly non-consensual desire – is paralleled by the submissive sex work and private self-mutilation of Jackie, which only involves the self. BDSM relies on the consensual agreement between partners. If something’s non-consensual it’s straight up assault/rape. This dichotomy emerges throughout the course of the film: Reed isn’t interested in a consenting partner, neither is he concerned with the pleasure of a partner, only seeking to assert his dominance violently, whereas Jackie’s use of BDSM is about the cathartic release of her self’s negativity.
While Reed acts worried about Jackie when he finds her self-mutilating, he only cares about the disappearance of power and control. This renders him, in a sense, impotent. She’s taken away his power. He wants her to consent to being murdered, occasionally believing she’s asking for it— hard not to see this mirrored in everyday life when men see women dressed or acting a certain way and assume this equates to relinquishing consent. Men, like Reed, choose to take potential clues from what they see or hear as suggestions rather than actually listening to the needs and wants of women.
The film’s best commentary involves the disparate view of pain between men and women. Many men externalise their pain by harming others, usually women, rather than dealing with the underlying issues causing the pain— not always entirely the man’s fault, but often a societal mechanism that’s moulded toxic masculinity while rejecting any other type of masculinity. In opposition, women usually internalise their pain, either through entirely mental processes tearing themselves down, or by way of physical means, like cutting or starving themselves, and in many other horrible ways society drives them to self-destruct.
screenshot2019-01-11at1.09.50pmMany people have found solace in the BDSM community, and for good reason. It can help people master and control psychological wounds, not to mention some just find pleasure in those types of consensual acts. In the wrong hands, it can be perverted (think of how destructive Fifty Shades of Grey is in its masquerade as being about BDSM when it’s actually depicting a violently abusive relationship between a powerful man and a young woman). Piercing doesn’t only focus on pain being experienced differently between men and women. The screenplay offers a look at how healthy BDSM relationships can devolve into actual abuse at the hands of bad men when weaponised against the consenting party, similar to how a woman’s sexuality becomes weaponised against her when it’s convenient for men. Reed misinterprets Jackie’s self-mutilation as evidence she wants to die, or wants to be hurt, when it’s actually her method of mastering her trauma without hurting someone else in the process.
Apart from any themes regarding BDSM v. abuse, Reed’s actions largely speak to the general attitudes of men when it comes to a woman’s bodily autonomy and what is/isn’t consent. Both he and Jackie have experienced horrors in their past, however, the way they deal with them respectively is a social microcosm of how men and women confront trauma. There’s a million miles of road between hurting yourself to relieve emotional pain and treating others as disposable flesh to harm so you can bury your own trauma.

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