Nocebo is director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley’s follow-up to the massively stylised Vivarium. It’s another horror movie, a much more conventional and familiar one this time, though driving it is something not so often encountered in horror – a “the empire strikes back” tale of capitalist overlords sucking a big one.
In a property-porn house in Dublin, Christine (Eva Green), her hunky husband Felix (Mark Strong) and their cute, smart kid Bobs (Billie Gadsdon) lead the lives that people of their class do. While the kid’s at a nice school, he works in marketing strategy and she’s a successful designer of children’s clothes, who we first meet supervising the shoot for an advertising campaign for her latest range.
Cut to eight months later and Christine is a wreck. An encounter with a scrofulous hound – real? imaginary? – has driven her to a physical and mental breakdown. Now a shadow of her former self, she is no longer able to work, can’t sleep without oxygen, is prone to fits, crying, panic attacks. Until one day a small, brown-skinned woman with a wide face arrives at her door, out of nowhere. You sent for me, says Diana (Chai Fonacier), like some impish Mary Poppins. And in Diana trots and takes over Christine’s life, first cooking Christine, the intensely wary Felix and super-suspicious Bobs a meal that is so delicious their objections start to melt away.
A story that’s something like a cross between The Servant and The Others starts to play out, with Christine nursed back to fitful health thanks to Diana’s calm smiling presence and a range of unconvential therapies drawn from a suitcase containing all manner of Filipino juu-juu. Felix remains unconvinced. Bobs keeps seeing odd manifestations in the house. Was that a dog on the landing? And why is Diana putting down what looks like cat litter outside her bedroom door?
More to the point, why is this film called Nocebo? Which is, unlike a placebo, an inert substance that does harm to the person who takes it, not good. Puzzle that one out while an old-fashioned, almost 1940s tale of psychological attack plays out, with Felix as the potential joker in this pack. Was Christine’s collapse down, in some way to his gaslighting? Is Diana a Mary Poppins, or something more malevolent? Where does the concept of a nocebo fit into all this?
Mark Strong is a bit (OK, a lot) underused in this film and the gaslighting aspect of the plot is downplayed to the point of being almost invisible. Still, it’s there somewhere, even if only in the cultural baggage of our times. This film is all about Christine, and Eva Green, parking much of the glam, puts on a great display as a red-eyed and distraught woman losing her shit, regaining it and losing it again, her state of mind becoming eventually subject to the whim of this strange wide-eyed Filipina (Fonacier doing a lovely job of remaining smilingly ambiguous).
Even before things get spooky, the soundtrack, heightened style of acting and lens choices are telling us that that’s where we we’re going. And if by the halfway mark you haven’t worked out where this is all going, I’m not going to tell you. Finnegan and writer Shanley carry on as if they hadn’t early on dropped obvious hints about Christine and Diana being connected through their children, and through the asymmetric power relations of transnational fashion.
Similarly, once Christine has reached “mad woman in the attic” stage, at about the halfway mark, there really isn’t much place for Christine (or Eva Green’s performance) to go, except for the plot to reveal why Diana is really in Dublin. Which, like I say, you’ll have already guessed, because Finnegan and Shanley have been signposting like crazy.
It looks good, as did Vivarium, it’s technically super-accomplished. The acting hits all the necessary notes. The atmosphere is thick and chewy. One day Finnegan and Shanley are going to knock it out of the park. But not today.
Nocebo – Watch it/buy it at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2022