We can all get a little competitive sometimes…
…Nocturne is a beautiful slow burn story about a gifted pianist that will do whatever it takes to step out of her sisters shadow and prove she’s anything but mediocre. An American supernatural horror written and directed by Zu Quirke, Nocturne is a part of the ‘Welcome to Blumhouse’ collection. Quirke’s directorial debut is a stunningly nuanced story that I found incredibly relatable and touching. As someone that’s studied at creative institutions for years I thought it perfectly captured the pressure placed on artists, both by themselves and by the people around them and the industry’s they work in.
CONTENT WARNING: Suicide.
Nocturne opens on an eerie shot that lingers on a corridor that will be seen repeatedly throughout the film, with paintings of famous classical musicians hanging from the walls in gilded gold frames. An enchanting and haunting melody plays as we’re pulled further in, and it’s in a music room at the very end of the hall that we meet Moira (Ji Eun Hwang), a young woman playing the violin. She stops when the grandfather clock chimes, and after calmly putting down her violin she goes outside onto a balcony. Without any hesitation, she steps off the ledge and falls to her death. Moira’s suicide was a shocking way to start the film but it also set a tone, one that was dark and serious, and it managed to maintain it until the credits rolled.
The title sequence was a charming compilation of vhs home movies about two twin girls, and it allowed us to get to know our main characters before we even met them. We saw them go from two babies swaddled in blankets, to teenage girls that are both grown and have an interest in music, and it’s clear it’s something that’s dominated their lives for a very long time.
Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) is the youngest, born only minutes after her sister Vivian (Madison Iseman), and it’s clear she’s been living in her shadow ever since. Vivian is assertive and confident. She has a boyfriend and no trouble being social, and she even got herself a place at Julliard in the upcoming year. While Jules is more passive and timid, she’s the sort of person that always seems to be on the outside socially, and she’s visibly struggling with the fact that she didn’t get picked by her dream school. Jules feels as though she’s failing in all aspects of her life. She’s not as successful as she wants to be musically, and she’s missed out on so many experiences because of it. She hasn’t kissed someone or smoked a cigarette before, and she’s never been selected to play concerto either.
It all seems hopeless until Jules accidentally comes across Moira’s old play book, which is full of music she’s not familiar with, and a collection of wonderfully dark and twisted illustrations…As well as a page that’s been ripped out. Could the play book be the key to Juliet taking control of her life and finally finding greatness, or will it be the thing that breaks her for good?
Sweeney delivers an amazing and nuanced performance as Juliet, bringing to life a character that was both subtle and complex, with a tremendous amount of emotional depth and an arc that required a lot from her as an actress. Iseman too did an incredible job as Vivian. At first I was worried about seeing a predictable reiteration of the “quiet one, loud one” trope, and I didn’t want to see her reduced to yet another two-dimensional popular girl. But that’s not what happened here. Vivian was a layered character with a story of her own, her relationship with her sister and everyone else around her was just as complex as Juliet’s, and I was heavily invested in her journey as a person.
Even the secondary characters were all well written and multi-faceted. The girls parents, Cassie (Julie Benz) and David (Brandon Keener), were a fun and stable couple that sincerely cared for both of their daughters. Juliet’s teacher Roger (John Rothman), who first came across as stiff and uninteresting, struggles with his own failures as a musician and takes it out on those below him by squashing their ambitions. While Vivian’s teacher Henri Cass (Ivan Shaw) was refreshingly direct and unafraid to challenge his students, though he too had a complicated relationship with music and his accomplishments. Even Vivian’s boyfriend (Jacques Colimon) showed an unexpected amount of depth and surprised me more than once.
Nocturne moves slowly but I didn’t once find it boring during the 90-minute run time, due to the interesting characters and the intricate relationship dynamics that kept developing as the story went on.
Knowing that this story centres around an elite music academy it should come as no surprise to anyone that sound plays an important part of this film. Not only does it feature plenty of beautiful classical music created by Ryan Neill and Shie Rozow, which is something I always love and appreciate in a film, it uses it in a way that amplifies the most important aspects of the story. The sound design by Michael Huang and Paul Mason was remarkably effective when it came to expressing the emotion of a scene and building suspense, with its haunting melodies and pulsing heart beats.
It was a visually stunning journey that had a cold and pale colour palette that I adore, with splashes of vibrant colour and warmth that amplified the more surreal and purposefully disjointed parts of the story. This was in severe contrast to the eerie and unsettling atmosphere that permeated the ordinary world. This is complimented by the breathtaking imagery, harsh cuts and long lingering shots from cinematographer Carmen Cabana.
There were a few times when things got bloody with some impressive gore created by Matthew T. Lynn, John R. McConnell and Anisha Archarya. But for the most part it is a psychological horror; instead of making you jump or look away in disgust, it’s more likely to work its way in to your head and leave you thinking about it long after the credits have finished rolling.
Nocturne is a touching and melancholic exploration of a young woman trying to step out of someone else’s shadow and take control of her own life, and the way it hurts when the rest of the world is telling you to lower your expectations and settle for being just fine. It meant a lot to me to see these struggles explored this way, and it asks the question, what would you really give to achieve your dreams?
Nocturne arrives on Amazon Prime October 13th as part of the Welcome to Blumhouse series of feature films this month.
By Dani Vanderstock