Set in a non-specific city, the barely-there plot concerns Reed (Christopher Abbott), who decides he is going to kill a prostitute. However, when the time comes to do the deed, things go down-hill fast, as Jackie (a superb turn from Mia Wasikowska) isn't entirely sane herself. Partly a film about coming to terms with desires deemed fetishistic by society, and partly an erotic thriller about two people who seem genuinely confused as to whether they're teammates or opponents, the film's most salient theme is, perhaps, the issue of sexual consent, and how easily muddled it can become. It's a brave theme to take on in this post MeToo era, with the film daring to ask whether consent should still be applicable if a person has consented to something harmful to their person, even up to the point of consensual homicide. Although there's no cannibalism in the film, the storyline reminded me a little of the 2001 case of Armin Meiwes, who murdered and ate Bernd Jürgen Brandes with Brandes's complete consent. The film doesn't deal with the case explicitly, but the shifting sexual power-play between Reed and Jackie, and the fact that at least twice, one of them believes they've been granted permission to murder the other, raises similar moral issues.
Within the parameters of this theme, one of the most obvious aspects of the film is its sense of humour, with many of the laughs coming from how utterly anal Reed is. Half Patrick Bateman, half Frank Spencer, once an unpredictable human element is introduced into his scheme, he finds himself unable to think on-the-fly. As his meticulously laid plans go up in smoke, he proves comically inept at handling any kind of interpersonal relationship (one wonders how he ever wooed Mona). However, the fact that most of the comedy lands on his shoulders throws into relief perhaps the film's most egregious problem; although a good 90% of the narrative is told from his perspective, there's precious little to his personality. Granted, a couple of final-act flashbacks fill us in on why he is so obsessed with murder, but his character simply isn't capable of filling out the film's 81 minutes. And there's less character detail on Jackie than there is on Reed. Despite this, Wasikowska gives a superb performance, all facial tics, unspoken volatility, and nervous mannerisms, with an almost balletic way of moving.
The problem for me is that nothing in the film really lingers - and when some of the imagery is this extreme, it should definitely linger. For example, I've never been able to completely forget my first viewing of Ôdishon - not because of the violence per se, but because the film spends so long building up the character of Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi), so that when those needles and that wire saw come out, you absolutely feel the weight of what is about to happen. In Piercing, I don't really think there's any depravity that Reed and Jackie could have inflicted on one another than would have provoked an emotional response, because I didn't know them, and therefore was unable to care about them, as people.
Aesthetically, however, there's a great deal to praise here, with the sound design particularly inventive. During Reed's rehearsal of the murder, he goes through the entire act, from the initial drugging to the dismemberment. On screen, we see him pantomime the actions, but on the soundtrack, we hear the disturbing foley of everything - so as he's miming sawing, we hear a saw cut through flesh and bone. It's a brilliant way to place us firmly within his subjective experience, and it also serves to remind us that the innocent looking Reed is very much planning to do real harm to someone. On a similar note, the music is absolutely top notch. Eschewing an original score, the film instead employs pre-existing tracks primarily from giallo films, including Goblin's scores for Dario Argento's Profondo rosso (1975) and Tenebre (1982), and Bruno Nicolai's score for Emilio Miraglia's La dama rossa uccide sette volte (1972).
The visual aesthetic is oftentimes as impressive as the aural. Exteriors (of which there are very few beyond the opening and closing credits) are obviously miniatures, with very little effort to make them look photorealistic. This sets an otherworldly tone right from the start, as if the film is taking place in a slightly alternate reality, as the real and the fake mix together in Reed's confused mind. Interiors are blank, as if they are show-houses, not actually inhabited by a flesh and blood person - one shot, for example, shows a drink's cabinet where the bottles have no brands, just the name of the alcohol. Again, this sets the film's reality apart, as if everything is happening just outside our own world, or our own conception of the world. There are also a couple of nods to the master of body horror, David Cronenberg - a stomach wound pulses and expands as if breathing, a gigantic beetle crawls out of a toilet and infects a character's face, scissor wounds are curiously fingered, a character's ear is split open with a tin opener. It's all very Disney!
Ultimately, however, Piercing is more interested in aesthetics than exploring the psychology of the characters. The increasingly extreme goings-on are never anything more than a jokey end unto themselves, with the psychological path that has led the characters to these extremities relatively ignored. With Pesce focused on comedy beats, there are certainly a few laughs, but there's precious little substance. He's undoubtedly adept at evoking the most absurdly grotesque comedy, but he is, thus far in his career, equally as uninterested in developing character or plot. And for that reason, the film comes across more like a calling-card than a self-sustained and complete product.