Director: Zu Quirke
Stars: Sydney Sweeney, Madison Iseman, Jacques Colimon
Sibling rivalry, bloody-minded ambition and collegiate pressure all coalesce in Zu Quirke’s excellent slow-burn creeper, Nocturne; the jewel in the crown thus far of Amazon Prime’s Welcome to the Blumhouse strand.
Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) and Vivian (Madison Iseman) are non-identical twins approaching 18 years of age, who have spent their youths pursuing the same vocation: classical piano. With the dream of a placement at prestigious school of music Juilliard ahead of them, both are competing for the solo spot in their college recital. Pitting sisters against one another almost always reveals inspired levels of cruelty, but there’s something more sinister in the mix here, too. Recently, the school has been touched by tragedy; its former apt pupil Moira (Ji Eun Hwang) committed suicide, exiting the stage in dramatic fashion. A jump to her death which begins the picture.
Juliet (whom the film spotlights), fears she is the lesser sibling. Even her father jokes about her birth two minutes prior to her sister’s, that “Someone’s gotta hold the door”. By chance (?), Juliet stumbles upon the late Moira’s notebook, in the process discovering what seems to be a Faustian pact to succeed. There are six steps, each ornately illustrated, with the last tantalisingly torn out. With the pressure mounting, Juliet starts to see correlations to her own life in the drawings in the book, as though she has inherited this potential deal with the devil. Success by any means comes with serious connotations here.
Quirke eschews most of the tropes of modern horror, favouring a more psychologically wrought offering with shades of Black Swan, Raw and, in a sense, American Mary. Not in terms of plot or gore, but rather in it’s focus on peer pressure, twin identities and the often toxic fixation with perfecting an art that is always subjective. Conversation repeatedly turns to the subject of perceived greatness and how to get there, as well as the threat that both Juliet and Vivian have either missed their shot already, or simply don’t have what it takes in the first place. These themes must feel close to the heart of Quirke; a fledgling filmmaker stepping out into a world that might quickly and simply reject her. One hopes that won’t be the case. There’s too much evident talent and potential here.
Her film speaks to a society that pushes and pushes for each and every one us to stand out, to make our mark, when there are only so many opportunities to do so. Being ordinary or forgettable is totally unacceptable. Everyone has to be a star.
Nocturne also plays, in the main, as a coming-of-ager. Menstrual blood becomes a focal point for embarrassment on two occasions, subtly feathering in a discourse on how often the arts are a boy’s club anyway, but also allowing Quirke to both foreshadow a bloody outcome and connect to the idea of feminine horror on a more primal level. The need to compete, always. Not just with your fellow sisters (literally and figuratively) but always within the male dominated world we all live in. We’re supposed to be repulsed by menstruation. But where has this suggestion come from? If Nocturne has an iconic sequence, it is when Juliet strides across campus clutching a handful of used tampons in her fist. It both rejects and redefines our associations. It feels defiant. An act intended to shame that’s being weaponised against the aggressor.
Sweeney gives a tour de force performance here; hopefully the signifier of a great career in the making. Quirke gives her so much to work with, too. Juliet isn’t somebody that we’re encouraged to like all of the time. Her myopic desire to outshine her sister casts her in a frequently unfavourable light. She horns in on Vivian’s mentor, Dr. Cask (Ivan Shaw), gets in close with Vivian’s boyfriend, Max (Jacques Colimon). Sometimes one wonders if Juliet is trying to best Vivian or replace her. Yet Sweeney still manages to evoke our sympathies throughout, as Juliet struggles against a system that seems to have set her up to fail.
The film has a washed out feel to it. It’s vaguely clinical and anemic. These aesthetic choices further the spiritual connections to the above mentioned feminine horror staples of the past decade. Quirke places herself in good company, but she’s clearly up to the task of joining the likes of the Soska sisters, Jennifer Kent, Rose Glass, Julia Ducournau and Sofia Takal at the forefront of a more female orientated wave of genre narratives. This isn’t about gender flipping. Instead its about the promise of new ideas and experiences generated from a perspective still sorely lacking representation in our genre cinema. One of the thrilling things about Nocturne throughout is the sense of not quite being able to guess how it’s going to end. This sense of someone upending the apple cart is what powers some of the best of horror. I’m looking forward to what else Quirke and Sweeney are capable of.