By Nadia Dalimonte
Sydney Sweeney in Nocturne (2020)
The dark side of ambition is explored within the competitive nature of classical music studies in the film Nocturne, written and directed by Zu Quirke. The protagonist, Juliet (Sydney Sweeney), is surrounded by like-minded gifted students vying to stand out with instrumental identity. But there is no one experiencing the competition for greatness quite like Juliet, whose innocent pursuit of perfection takes a devilish turn and blurs reality as she knows it. Nocturne plays in a vein similar to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan in that the film delves into the psychological horror of wanting to be perfect. Besides looking at complicated student-teacher relationships, Quirke’s narrative focuses on a young woman who makes an emotional pact with jealousy and a supernatural pact with the devil in order to become the best.
The story follows Juliet (Sweeney), a quiet pianist who attends an elite music academy with her Juilliard-bound, social butterfly twin sister Vivian (Madison Iseman). As Vivian continues to excel with prodigy status, Juliet wrestles with being seen as the understudy who plays second fiddle to her more accomplished sister. It seems the more Juliet tries, the more she goes unnoticed, until one day she discovers a notebook belonging to a deceased prodigy student named Moira (Ji Eun Hwang). The beginning of the film reveals Moira’s death, and her demise leads to an ominous, symbolic path that finds its way to Juliet. The notebook discovery comes at a time when Juliet is particularly vulnerable to the budding jealousy felt towards Vivian, and soon the mysterious inscriptions on Moira’s pages cast a haunting cloud over Juliet’s soul.
Nocturne walks a fine tightrope of paying homage to horrors of the past while trying to stick the landing and create a new page in the notebook of psychological thrillers. The film expands on the notion that in order to achieve greatness, one must be willing to sacrifice. With that idea comes the question, how far is one person willing to go? Juliet pushes the boundaries to dangerous lengths and becomes a more enigmatic protagonist in the process, as she takes the audience on a possessed journey that sees the otherworldly collide with real life. Quirke establishes a strong sense of setting through the aesthetics, characters, and world building. It is crystal clear that the characters’ lives are revolving around measures of success at the music academy. The film is a good exploration of how striving for perfection can completely take over a person’s mind and slowly chip away at a person’s soul. The film also gives off a slightly aloof feeling by focusing on Juliet’s more reserved persona and bringing pages of Moira’s mysterious notebook to light. There is a disturbing parallel drawn between the two characters; things take an odd turn as Juliet starts to experience scenarios that mirror Moira’s disturbing drawings. After each scenario, Juliet rushes back to the notebook and sure enough, it’s as if the course of her life is pre-determined on the page. While there is nothing new about Faustian themes of ambition and surrender of morality, Quirke tries to shake things up a bit by incorporating these supernatural elements into the mix.
A lot of time is spent on establishing the relationship between Juliet and Vivian as they behave differently in search of perfection within the same world. This is certainly time well spent, given a lot of the film’s emotional core lies within the sibling dynamics. More often than not though, the spooky elements tend to feel more thrown in rather than embedded into the story. Moira’s tragic past is constantly linked to Juliet’s present experiences, yet when haunting images of Moira appear, it feels jarringly out of place. Not enough time is spent delving deep into the parallels between both characters beyond the fact that they’re both pianists who made a devilish pact. While the screenplay doesn’t feel fully realized, watching the story play out through Juliet’s eyes is intriguing. The film cements itself as a promising vehicle for Sydney Sweeney, known for her excellent turn as Cassie Howard in HBO’s award-winning Euphoria. In Nocturne, she delivers a committed and compelling performance out of derivative material. She instills a magnificent sense of paranoia that stretches from innocent ambition to warped possession, as she pushes everyone out of her way while in a dark trance of ambition. The moving parts of this story may not always come to fruition, but Zu Quirke sets the stage for an entertaining psychological thriller with a truly great performance surpassing potential at the center.