There is a type of story that comes up a lot in film and television – a genius seeking perfection. I recently watched horror-thriller The Menu, in which Ralph Fiennes plays a genius, a lauded chef who whose life – and those of his staff – is dedicated to creating the best dining experience possible. Even before the more horror-thriller aspects of the film are made clear the dedication of Fiennes’ character and those around him is unsettling and extreme but this extreme behaviour is found in a lot of movie perfectionists.
Spoiler Warning – spoilers ahead for The Prestige, Phantom Thread, Whiplash, I, Tonya
Perhaps Christopher Nolan’s best film The Prestige is about two rival stage magicians, each desperate to outperform the other and become the best. This obsession costs them both a lot. Angier (Hugh Jackman) loses his wife, dying in an accident he blames on Borden (Christian Bale), the latter loses two fingers when Angier sabotages a trick, they go round and round desperate to beat each other but also to be the best. Both throw away fortunes, relationships and their lives in pursuit of this. The final reveal of what both have truly sacrificed is shocking but both were happy to make that sacrifice.
Moving into the world of fashion in Phantom Thread, Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a 1950s fashion designer. He is part of the archetype of the genius who must have everything just so, his elaborate breakfast rituals must be followed, the running of his house, his business, everything. People who disagree with him or how he does things are idiots to be ignored. His sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville), keeps the whole thing running and is one of the few people who will stand up to him and survive. Another of Renyolds’ traits is he regularly finds a muse, a younger woman who he will date for some time, then grow bored of and separate from. Already Reynolds’ exacting attitudes distance both friends and customers, people he encounters in his life who are accosted by his difficult behaviour are shocked. But when Alma becomes his latest muse this pursuit of perfection is taken to a dangerous level.
When it seems that Reynolds is tiring of her she takes the drastic action of poisoning him – not to kill him, but to make him ill, make him weak and make him need her. She nurses him back to health, he gets back to work, and some time goes by and again he grows tired of her and she starts poisoning him again. What is truly bizarre is that Reynolds is completely aware of this and thinks it is for the best, they both get what they need and he is inspired in his work.
With Whiplash we have a film where not just one person is seeking perfection, they’re seeking perfection from everyone else. Andrew (Miles Teller) is a student at the Shaffer Conservatory, an elite music school in New York, and there he counters Fletcher (J.K Simmons) who has a unique style of teaching – that being of throwing chairs at students. Fletcher’s treatment of his students is appalling and after pushing Andrew over the edge he is fired (as numerous other complaints come to light). In a brilliant and extremely telling scene later in the film fletcher tells Andrew “there are no two more harmful words in the English Language than ‘good job'”, which he feels doesn’t push anyone and he pushed people. It seems that Fletcher is completely sincere in this belief but does he want to gift the world a great musician, the next Charlie Parker, or does he want to be known as the man who made Charlie Parker?
A film that I felt really captured the pursuit of perfection or being the best is I, Tonya. The film is both about sport – figure skating – and the notorious incident in Tonya Harding’s life – that attack on rival skater Nancy Kerrigan. Harding started skating at a very young age and demonstrated her brilliance but always felt her road was harder because she came from a poor family, didn’t use the right music and didn’t have the right image. Much is made of the fact that Harding can do a triple axel, an extremely difficult move and of which Tonya was the first to do in competition. At one point described as “you skate backwards then take off from a forward position on your left leg and somehow fuckin’ hurl yourself blindly for 3 1/2 rotations like you’re light as shit which I’m telling you Tonya never was – landing on the opposite foot on the back outside edge of that razor-thin blade, you may notice due to change in tone this is being described by Harding’s coach and interspersed with Harding’s mother a less kind and professional figure. It is as good a description of what perfection means as you will find. The first sentence about skating backwards already seems impossible. Tonya Harding’s quest for perfection, for being the best (and in the film Harding describes herself as the best skater in the world – for a time) leads to obsession and violence and she lost just about everything.