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Nocturne | Review

Faustabout: Quirke Dances with the Devil in Moody, Familiar Debut

Zu Quirke Nocturne ReviewSatan might be one of the most prolific talent scouts in this realm or any other, at least if we’re counting the number of Faustian tinged films about artists and other creatives selling their souls to get ahead in their chosen profession. Musically inclined young women seem to be especially prone to such psychological pratfalls in this sort of subgenre and director Zu Quirke lands squarely in this school with her debut Nocturne.

Effective as a moody psychological character study but perilously derivative in its supernatural reaches, much depends on the entrancing lead performance form Sydney Sweeney as the less-talented twin reared by a family and fostered by a school community to be a polished failure.

Juliet Lowe (Sydney Sweeny) and her fraternal twin sister Vivian (Madison Iseman) both attend the same prestigious musical academy but it’s immediately clear both young women haven’t received the same acclaim. Juliet, described as a ‘work-horse,’ is being groomed by her teacher Roger (Joseph Rothman) to be a teacher herself, while Vivian has received an early acceptance from Juilliard. But when fellow student Moira (Ji Eun Hwang), who was set to serve as the concerto soloist at the annual school performance, commits suicide, the dead girl’s notebook falls into Juliet’s hands. Within its pages are strange incantations which seem to grant the bearer special powers. Moira’s seat needs to be filled, and the competition to find the new soloist will be remounted, the winner claiming the spot as her replacement. Juliet, schooled on Mozart, suddenly decides instead to play the same piece Vivian has chosen, Piano Concerto No. 2 by Camille Saint-Saëns. The decision causes an immediate rift with Vivian, and a ripple effect of tragic events.

Musical academics are the remnants of a dying cultural faction, something lightly addressed in conversation by the twin’s parents. It’s a customary afterthought in many of these similarly designed tales around either the teachers or the students, however, Austrian literature seems to have tackled these sentiments best, decades ago. If Suspiria (either version) or Black Swan were Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher in this equation, then Nocturne plays like Ernst Weiss’ Franziska, a tale of a mediocre concert pianist who throws caution to the wind in pursuit of her dreams, hobbled by toxic relationships with two men.

Sweet, who has a certain enigmatic vibe in her large, wondering gaze, certainly allows for us to build empathy for Juliet, like the melancholic protagonist of a Billie Eilish music video. And while Madison Iseman has the more entertaining role as the pouty fraternal sister, Quirke doesn’t quite formulate a realistic sibling rivalry between them. Theirs is a relationship which seems more like friends who became frenemies, their halting behavior based on the dynamic (Juliet’s passion for piano is what led her sister into it) more suggestive of how we would expect Angelina Jolie to dismissively treat her Girl, Interrupted (1999) co-star Winona Ryder seeing as it was the latter’s labor of love project and the former received all the critical acclaim. The same can be said for their parents, not only strangely peripheral in the narrative but presented as a pair of tasteless, basic rubes.

What Quirke really nails in Nocturne is the psychological fallout of this academic warfare. Juliet is presented like a Tonya Harding—since her presentation doesn’t fit their profile, she will always be kept down by the gatekeepers who prefer the standard look. However, despite a formidably potent sound design and an excellent soundtrack from Gazelle Twin (Elizabeth Bernholz), it ends up playing like a poor man’s Aronofsky.

Carmen Cabana’s cinematography also isn’t allowed to unfurl itself beyond a few choice moments, though a handful of moments really nail the interior eeriness of Juliet’s state of mind. However, Juliet’s dueling mentors are a couple additional bright spots, including character actor John Rothman (Copycat, 1995) and “Insecure” alum Ivan Shaw, whose makes devious imperiousness strangely sexy. Interesting but never reaching a full boil considering its potential hobbled by familiarities, Nocturne is an entertaining, potentially forgettable cover.

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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