2.5 out of 5 stars

Director Lorcan Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley delivered an original and confident allegorical drama in Vivarium (2019), their tale of Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg trapped in a seemingly infinite suburb. Its metaphor of adulthood and parenthood might have been a little obvious, but it managed to combine nightmare and poetry, plausible detail and flights of fantasy exceptionally well.

With Nocebo, their third feature together, Finnegan and Shanley turn to more varied but more realistic settings—a middle-class home that’s probably supposed to be in London (though the film was largely made in Dublin), a fashion company’s offices, a Filipino sweatshop—and also more familiar narrative devices like the intrusion of weirdness into otherwise normal lives and mental illness as a manifestation of guilt.

Unfortunately, while it benefits from strong performances and many individual scenes work well enough, the movie’s big revelation is so obvious that the mysteriousness it presumably strives for is seriously diluted.

Christine (Eva Green) is a fashion designer specialising in children’s clothes; her husband, Felix (Mark Strong) is a marketing consultant. Together they have a daughter of about six or seven called Bobs (Billie Gadsdon) and seem to lead a comfortable, unremarkable life, neither miserable nor deliriously happy.

One day at a fashion show, however, Christine receives a phone call telling her the factory in the Philippines where her clothes are manufactured by low-paid seamstresses has burned down, with much loss of life. (The incident is roughly based on the 2015 Kentex fire in Manila, though the film appears to relocate it to Cebu City.)

Almost as soon as she hangs up the phone, shocked, she sees a blind, mangy, bug-covered dog that’s inexplicably appeared in the spotless showroom—an animal that nobody else can apparently see, and which soon disappears.

Some months later, Christine’s in a bad way, suffering from memory loss and uncontrollably shaking hands, sleeping with a respirator-like mask over her face that uncomfortably brings up images of COVID-19 intensive care wards, and taking handfuls of pills to address what presumably are stress-related ailments following the horrifying phone call and the strange vision of the dog.

Then help arrives— supposedly—in the form of Diana (Chai Fonacier), a young Filipina woman who shows up on Christine and Felix’s doorstep and insists that they hired her. Perhaps Christine, with all her issues, has simply forgotten? Felix is sceptical but Christine is more welcoming; the newcomer can lift some weight from her shoulders as she tries to get back to design work. Even Felix has to acknowledge she’s a good cook.

Soon, Diana also offers to help Christine with her problems, and her employer becomes a willing recipient of Filipino folk cures that look suspiciously like witchcraft to the unknowledgeable eye—as they certainly do to Felix. Diana also forms a bond with young Bobs after initial hostility from the child, and…

…well, you can almost certainly figure out by now where this is going, right? Even if the meaning of the devastating phone call wasn’t entirely clear early on (you’d only have to miss, or mishear, a single phrase), by the time we see Christine visiting a Filipino garment factory in a flashback and insisting that the workers churn out more every hour, there’s no doubt left about Diana’s intentions, the direction of the story arc, and the film’s moral lesson about the cost of fashion. (A worthy lesson, but not one that will surprise anyone either.)

All that’s left for Nocebo to do is to fill in the details. To their credit, the cast does this very ably; Green is credible and never excessive as the mother trying to hold herself together, while the frequently passive-aggressive Fonacier successfully keeps us guessing about Diana as long as possible—we can tell she’s brimming with secrets and plans. Strong perhaps phones it in a little, but he’s incapable of giving a bad performance; Gadsdon as their daughter moves believably between moods, and Cathy Belton convinces as a fashion label executive.

Nocebo doesn’t resort to fully-fledged horror until the very end, with a brief touch of gruesome spectacle; and though moments such as the first appearance of the dog can be effective, Finnegan and Shanley seem a little unsure exactly how far they want to take the supernatural element.

For the most part, this well-acted and technically well-made film (reportedly the first ever Irish-Filipino co-production) is a lower-key, slower-burn psychological thriller instead. But the suspense it achieves early on is allowed to drain away when it spells out too much too soon, and from there it can’t do much more than fill in the details of a narrative that has become predictable.


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Cast & Crew

director: Lorcan Finnegan.
writer: Garret Shanley.
starring: Eva Green, Mark Strong & Chai Fonacier.