The knowledge that the second feature by Nicolas Pesce, who directed The Eyes of My Mother, is an adaptation of a novel by Murakami Ryu, who wrote Audition, should be enough to give absolutely even the most stalwart among us pause for a moment. For those are two monumentally fucked-up, bleak stories about the depths of sadism humans can sink to (Audition was, of course, turned into an infamous film in its own right by Miike Takashi in 1999).

But any good provocateur knows that it takes more than being gross to provoke: it takes being stunning, and it is indeed a bit stunning that Piercing, this meeting of the minds between Pesce and Murakami, should be so damn playful. Not that it's not perfectly fucked-up in its own right, and I do not want to be the reason anybody happily stumbles into watching it without knowing exactly what they're getting into. But where The Eyes of My Mother is very much something to be endured (and, I think, greatly appreciated, though I understand where that's not exactly a consensus opinion), Piercing is a bit of a sharp, zippy comedy, with a lot of style that's very punch and... "fun" is not a word with the right implications. But it's pretty compulsively watchable, even when this is because of how happily grotesque it can be.

The tension between playful cinematic invention and fucked-up content is evident pretty much immediately. The film opens with a tracking shot across an unnamed city that is very obviously portrayed by model buildings, lit just enough to accentuate their lack of detail and toy-like textures. Actually, that's not even how it opens: it starts with old-fashioned studio logos that are covered in VHS static, giving the film the immediate feeling of being a cheap throwback, an ancient old tape that has been treated with no respect in the back corner of an equally ancient mom & pop video rental store. It's a cheeky promise of something grungy and no-account to follow, and this very much what we get. First from the enthusiastic chintziness of the model, and then from the scene we find when we zoom in towards one of the painted dioramas inside one of those apartments. Here, we find a painfully dull-seeming late-twentysomething white guy, Reed (Christopher Abbott), who is clutching an ice pick so hard that his fist is shaking, and holding the point inches away from his infant child. This, then, is the other part of Piercing: not the merry, grungy genre sandbox, but a horrifying story of a man with no characteristics we ever learn about except that he is broken and cruel and prone towards doing violence. My understanding is that Murakami goes into some detail explain his protagonist's disturbed mind, but Pesce gives us nothing else to go on, and I think this is all for the better: it makes Reed's viciousness seem to simply be the natural order of things, a depravity that just exists, and must be grappled with in some capacity since it can't be fixed or explained away.

The movie that follows from this point is a busy, fast-paced 81 minutes of hell, as Reed decides to kill a prostitute, presumably in order to exorcise whatever demons are leading him to fantasise about murdering a baby. He rents a very fancy and very chilly hotel room, and starts rehearsing how he'll perform the deed, pantomiming the act of killing while wearing the very serious face of an earnest child, and if there's any scene that perfectly sums up what Piercing is best at, it's this: watching Abbott pantomime violence, with the soundtrack erupting in the hideous noises of bloody death, while it all seems very ridiculous and pathetic. Our psychopath for the evening is, to be perfectly frank about it, a hapless buffoon, which adds a farcical layer to the movie without depriving him of the sense of danger. Indeed, it makes him seem even more dangerous, since he also seems like the person who loses control easily when he messes up, and he is surely going to mess up.

The rest of the film is a two-hander demonstrating how, exactly, he messes up. The escort services sends him a different woman than the one he wanted: Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), who has her own set of unexplained traumas, and her own way of working through them. From the moment she walks into the room, Piercing becomes a warped dark comedy playing around with our expectations of power dynamics, cheerfully mocking the repulsive violent masculinity represented by Reed, and tweaking our expectations for how sexual kink is represented in cinema. It is, in a way, an anti-sexploitation film, wallowing in sordid content but playing it as a constant stream of frustrations and swerves.

It's an excessive movie, lingering on close-ups filled with stage blood and letting Abbott and Wasikowska go to town with mannered, eccentric performances. Especially Wasikowska, who's practically be treating Jackie as a screwball comedy heroine, talking rings around Abbott and pulling faces constantly (she's so cranked-up that at multiple points she loses her American accent; in one scene, she sounds so blatantly Australian that it seems like it must have been a deliberate choice, though I'm not sure to what end). The film is made of pure nervous energy, never letting us forget that Reed, for all his haplessness, is a cold-blooded monster, and deriving quite a bit of good suspense not from the development of plot, but from tone: all this dark comedy, all this visual razzle-dazzle, and at some point we sense that it obviously has to collapse into brutality. It's a lot, and it's routinely uncomfortable and unpleasant, but it also moves, and even when it's predictable (there is a good amount of Audition within it, let's say), it's still not actually easy to see how it's going to get to where it's going.

All that being said, the film's desire to keep topping itself eventually goes far enough that it starts to break apart. Eventually, it decides to give us some explanations: not of Jackie, who remains more or less a cipher, even as she's invariably the more likable character (this is, I think, one of the film's dark jokes: it persistently yokes us to Reed's POV while making us aware of how vile he is and unworthy of our attention). But Reed gets a full drug-trip flashback that tries to explain when and why he broke in the ways that led to this moment, and it's pretty disappointing and momentum-crushing. Pesce and company make it as much of a whirlwind of psychedelic imagery as they can manage, and some of the film's most striking visuals come during this sequence. But it's still a slog and a downshift in narrative flow at a very bad moment.

The other annoyance - and this is wholly a matter of taste - is that this wants very much to be a giallo homage, for reasons that are not in any obvious way motivated by the setting, the plot, or the characters. Yet that's what the camera is doing, it's what the production design is doing, andit's explicitly what the soundtrack is doing, with its pilfering from several prominent giallo soundtracks, including one scene that gains literally all of its force from Goblin's main theme from Deep Red. This isn't the kind of kitschy post-modern pastiche that can get away with borrowing something as immediately recognisable as that (and that's not the most recognisable piece, either; the main theme from Tenebrae kicks in when the end credits start), and it's simply too distracting to avoid puncturing the film's bubble. Especially given that the audience of people who'd choose to see this film surely must be drawing extensively from the audience of people who love gialli.

On the other hand, the film is such a strange bird that one hesistates to say that anything about it should be changed, for fear of undoing the magic spell of the whole. A screwball romantic BDSM sex comedy about a psychopath being constantly outwitted by his prey is already such an arch construct that a little more archness is hardly going to feel out of place. There's so much about Piercing that sparkles with cruel delight, from the picture box opening to the perfectly timed bad joke of the last line, that its missteps feel almost more like part of the warped logic of the thing, rather than a mistake.