Film Review – Nocturne
The third film in the “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series is Nocturne (2020). Easily the weirdest – and therefore most interesting – of the four entries, this examines the classic case of an artist sacrificing themselves for the sake of their work. Seeing someone accomplish a feat few others can is one of the most enthralling things to witness. This premise is a great way to illustrate a character’s obsession and how it can open the door to darker realms all in the pursuit of perfection. We’ve seen it in The Red Shoes (1948), Black Swan (2010) and Whiplash (2014) to name a few.
Nocturne is not nearly as good as those mentioned, but I do think writer/director Zu Quirke taps into the same narrative thread. To become great at art – whether it be painting, dance, music, etc. – takes years of dedication and practice. To become the best at something often requires sacrifices most aren’t willing to make. In Whiplash, a character shed blood after countless hours of training. In Black Swan, a dancer fell so far into their role that they lost their very soul. And in The Red Shoes, the protagonist danced themselves to death because they never figured out how to stop.
Quirke changes up the approach by not making this about the masochistic means people go through to reach greatness, but how cutting corners and cheating your way to the top removes any kind of self-fulfillment. Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) is a talented classical pianist attending a prestigious art school. But no matter how long or hard she practices, Juliet always ends up being second to her twin sister Vivian (Madison Iseman). Vivian is the more naturally gifted of the two and has already been accepted into Julliard for the following year. When the annual graduation performance comes along, Vivian is assumed to be the favorite for the solo piece.
That is, until Juliet stumbles upon a mysterious notebook left by Moira (Ji Eun Hwang), one the best musicians of their class who recently passed away. Inside are handwritten sheet music accompanied by strange drawings and symbols straight out of a witch’s book of spells. Soon enough, Juliet starts having visions from book, and realizes that it can be used as a blueprint to obtain whatever she desires. She makes a Faustian bargain to use the book as a way to steal the solo from her sister and to crush anyone that stands in her way.
Nocturne plays like a horror film, but not in terms of scares or gore. The horror lies in watching Juliet’s psyche slowly crumble as her connection to the notebook and jealousy of her sister increase. We notice the seeds planted right away. Quirke’s tonal control and Sydney Sweeney’s balanced performance place Juliet as an outsider. Where Vivian is more social, Juliet is closed off. Where Vivian has a group of friends, Juliet plays tag along. Where Vivian’s teachers recognize her potential, Juliet’s teachers see her as nothing more than a member of a chamber group. Carmen Cabana’s cinematography puts us inside of Juliet’s mind. We see things in slow motion, meant to reflect Juliet’s perspective. Her gaze becomes more intense as her desire to be better than Vivian amplifies.
Quirke’s dialogue cuts right into the heart of the characters, like a pin being pushed into a balloon. There’s a poignant way in how characters know exactly what to say to get under a person’s skin. Juliet and Vivian have been side by side all of their lives, they know everything about each other. This makes them extremely close but leaves them vulnerable to one another’s verbal assaults. They know what buttons to press, and they do so with both passive aggressiveness and full on force. Juliet’s journey into the dark side is believable partially because of how effective the writing is.
We never really get a true understanding of how the notebook is used as a magical force. The rules are a little hazy, and how Juliet goes about following its steps requires that we brush over several gaps in logic. In fact, the story could have gone without the notebook and may have been just as effective as a straight on character study. The sheet music is forgotten about and the drawings are interpreted with Generic Horror Movie tropes. Juliet’s fantasies and hallucinations didn’t quite work either. The symbolism didn’t have the heft it was meant to have, and her flights of fancy were forced and artificial. Whenever we came back to these elements is when the overall effectiveness started to dip.
Nocturne works at a high level when we see Juliet clashing with everyone around her as well as with herself. She wants to be more than a talented musician – she wants to be more than just Vivian’s understudy. But her willingness to take the easy path lead to tragic results. This is a good – if uneven – psychological thriller.