An incredibly gifted pianist makes a Faustian bargain to overtake her older sister at a prestigious institution for classical musicians.
The Devil, they say, has all the best tunes. But it’s rare he gets so deeply involved in music as he does in Nocturne, writer-director Zu Quirke’s debut feature; another damp squib in Amazon Prime’s exclusive ‘Welcome to the Blumhouse’ horror strand.
The concept is good, if unoriginal. Two sisters, Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) and Vivian (Madison Iseman), are both piano students at a high school for gifted kids, but Madison’s starting to eclipse her younger sibling both musically and socially. After a fellow student kills herself in bizarre circumstances, however, Juliet finds a book of hers containing music, indecipherable inscriptions, and strange drawings.
She soon discovers the book makes ambitions come true—but at a cost. (You’d be disappointed if you acquired a book full of weird images and it didn’t lure you into a Faustian Pact, right?) Juliet’s star suddenly begins to shine more strongly, both in music-making and with the boys, while her sister Vivian suffers one misfortune after another.
The question is… well, the question is obvious. The book presumably drove its previous owner to suicide (in a striking and stylised opening we see her playing Giuseppe Tartini’s “Devil’s Trill Sonata” on the violin before leaping to her death). So will it do the same to Juliet? Will she learn, before it’s too late, that winning the concerto competition isn’t everything? And if she doesn’t learn that lesson, who will have to suffer for her success?
We’ve seen this all before, many times, and there are particular echoes of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010) in this film, but it’s still an enticing enough set-up. The problem with Nocturne isn’t the idea, it’s that the idea is developed and executed so tediously, despite a few nice touches.
The big opportunity that presents itself, to put the actual music in the strange book at the heart of the story, is never exploited. There are some mildly surprising shots and cuts, but they’re far from disturbing. And even once actual spookiness starts to take hold, it’s still lukewarm stuff. The first genuinely chilling moment comes with the odd look Vivian’s boyfriend Max (Jacques Colimon) gives to Juliet after she’s seduced him, as it’s apparent he senses something is wrong with her, but isn’t sure what… and it’s not followed up!
On the plus side, there’s a cleverly ambiguous and thought-provoking final scene built around a great image, and one smart twist involving a teacher (Ivan Shaw) on whom Juliet tries out her newfound sexual confidence. Some early misdirection about that teacher succeeds too, with a rack focus shot presenting him as almost ridiculously sinister.
Some of the performances are strong, particularly Sweeney’s in the lead. Her vulnerability and honesty with Max at a party are convincing, as is her terror toward the climax, and she invests the role with appropriate flavours of Carrie White. (There’s even a surprise concerning her period.) Iseman as her more confident sister is believable too, while John Rothman’s music teacher is fun, resembling a dissolute Tom Hanks. Juliet’s angry and disappointed meltdown with him, where she refuses to believe that she doesn’t have a future as a musical star, is one of the best scenes.
Most of the other students (and indeed adults) are nonentities, however, which sometimes gives the evil-book-in-a-musical-high-school concept the feeling of an M.R James story transported into the world of Nickelodeon’s Victorious. VFX are cheesy, the dialogue unmemorable, and given the film’s focused so much on developing its story rather than getting inside its characters… the eeriness the tale calls for never materialises.
Where Nocturne does excel, perhaps appropriately, is with the music itself. The score by Elizabeth Bernholz (Gazelle Twin) is outstanding, especially the use of the song “Unflesh”, and there’s imaginative use of multiple classical sounds overlaid on each other. Nocturne is unusually intelligent in its discussion of classical music, too—the realities of the modern classical world rarely get looked at in cinema! For example, its acknowledgment that even highly talented kids frequently have no chance of reaching the top ranks of the profession, or in its frank comment on the problem of declining and ageing audiences.
Perhaps Nocturne have been better as a straight drama about musical ambition and competitiveness, without the not-so-terrifying horror elements. Shaw’s music teacher says that “Mad Moira”, the student who kills herself at the beginning of Nocturne, “played like the Devil was in the room”. Unfortunately, a viewer of the film never gets the feeling that the Devil is even in the building.
USA | 2020 | 90 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writer & director: Zu Quirke.
starring: Sydney Sweeney, Madison Iseman, Jacques Colimon, Ivan Shaw, Julie Benz, Brandon Keener & JoNell Kennedy.