Welcome to the Blumhouse has produced their first quadtych of features for us to consume and enjoy this Halloween season, with an interesting mixture of stories and actors. Personally, I found Nocturne to be the most appealing and interesting of them all – seeing Sydney Sweeney venture into Horror ensured a curiosity, and the idea of sacrificial art always hints at a great avenue for creativity. So how does Zu Quirke venture down that avenue?
Nocturne follows twin sisters Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) and Vivian (Madison Iseman), both child virtuosos at the piano, as they attempt to navigate the impossibly competitive nature of the musical arts at boarding school. Juliet’s jealousy of Vivian’s success into Juliard begins to manifest a rift between the two, spurred on mysteriously by a recently-deceased classmate’s notes, which begins Juliet on a vindictive journey to force herself out of Vivian’s shadow, and imprison her within hers.
While this is Zu Quirke’s first feature, she has a background in shorts that I may investigate – while there are familiar tropes at play here – the sibling rivalry, the sinister boarding school – it’s a very Faustian tale that while old, is still a classic to come back to with a reinvention of ideas or reinterpretation of the story itself; Quirke keeps these ideas interesting and you entertained as they unfold. The siblings themselves are both remarkable unlikeable characters, but for very different reasons – Vivian’s egotistical nature and self-awareness of her prestige against Juliet’s paradoxical narcissistic anxiety spurred on by jealousy promotes a rivalry that never allows you to truly empathize with either character. (Also just as a side note, the term ‘wombie’ is one of the worst things I’ve heard in a while, so that helps to make you dislike Vivian too.) Quirke breeds contemptuous resentment between the sisters that feels real, with the pair firing back against one another as though bound in a duet to the death. While this is clearly Juliet’s story, Quirke constructs a character that is the right balance of narcissistic and self-doubt, creating a complex protagonist who we never fully feel on board with. There’s subtle hints of Vivian and Juliet being two different sides of the same coin with their personalities through the contrasts in their outfits, a nice little addition of depth by the costume department of Quirke’s behalf.
The through line that is instilled into this piece is that “music is a blood sport”, as so told to us by Vivian’s and subsequently Juliet’s mysterious teacher, Henry. It’s clear that the academy they both attend pushes empathy to the fringes of the mind, with the obsession of brilliance and talent taking up the forefront of everyone, Juliet and Vivian especially. Consequently, it’s no surprise that a musical battle royale is what ensues for the senior concerto role between the siblings, as Juliet begins to take everything from Vivian with a new-found ironic strength, growing in narcissistic confidence and self-belief as her mind is gradually consumed. Quirke employs a great visual technique to highlight Juliet’s symbiosis with this satanic power through the introduction of colour into the sheet book, almost as though Juliet is signing a blood pact through the surrender of her own creativity and emotion.
Sydney Sweeney gives another great performance here – she has this knack at displaying hints of hatred and contempt without going over-the-top, particularly in moments where she’s challenged on her own self-belief of her talent. During Juliet’s rendition of Vivian’s own piece, her performance lends itself to a state of possession, as her body moves with a fluidity of a puppet, controlled by an unseen master. Although the nuance of her performance is certainly something to commend, I would’ve liked to see a fully unhinged Juliet by the end of the feature, but unfortunately we never really take the final plunge into madness that she seems to be barrelling toward. Her moments of madness are definitely a highlight – her vision of her performance at the concerto is a great sinister moment, leaving us unsure if this is actually the future, or she’s being shown her own desires in an attempt to push her further into this darkness that is gradually consuming her.
I only wish that Quirke had pushed further with these ideas, as there’s the making for a maniacal symphony of desire and death in the skeleton of her script. The fleeting moments of madness-induced visions Juliet encounters are easily my favourite scenes, as we observe the symbolic become the actual, using Juliet as a conduit. I see shades of Guadagnino’s Suspiria within Nocturne, which is perhaps why I hoped for it to truly devolve, but unfortunately it never reaches the potential that it hints at, which creates a slightly muted finale – however, the final visual is certainly a memorable one.
Nocturne is certainly one of the greater pieces of the Welcome to the Blumhouse foundations, showing a promising beginning for Zu Quirke and giving Sydney Sweeney more opportunities to highlight her emotional range, this time depicting someone more consumed by madness than sadness. While it doesn’t fully achieve the potential that it appears to offer, taking the safer route rather than indulging itself, it carries its notes well and leads you through a cacophonous mind with some delightful moments of melody.
Nocturne is now available as part of the Welcome to the Blumhouse collection on Amazon Prime Video.