Nocturne is a story about two sisters. Twins. Both students at an arts academy. Vivian (Madison Iseman) is off to prestigious Juilliard soon; Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) isn’t. Vivian has a hot boyfriend; Juliet doesn’t. Vivian plays tricksy pieces by the likes of Saint Saëns; Juliet sticks with safe dependable Mozart. Vivian is feisty and popular; Juliet is moody and a loner.
Both seem reasonably accepting of their lot, until a fellow student commits suicide (we see her leaping from an upper floor in a pre-credits sequence), and Juliet comes into possession of a book once owned by the dead student, a book full of spooky satanic drawings with a medieval flavour.
Duh, duh, duuuh… right?
As the two girls vie for the scholarship place suddenly left open by their fellow student’s death, the imbalances in their relationship start to assert themselves and their sisterly mutual support system fractures – Juliet wants more than fate seems to have allotted her, and in particular she wants what Vivian has.
Dark forces are at work. Whether Juliet is harnessing them or being used by them is never made entirely clear, but darker than that is Juliet’s resentment at her sister’s talent and her inability to face up to the fact that she’s not going to be a Sviatoslav Richter or a Glenn Gould – by the time a musician is 17/18 that ship has already sailed. Instead of being one of the greats, very very good is a fail, and destines her to teach in an academy, like the teachers she’s surrounded by and increasingly despises.
So we have the underdog sister whose life of denial for her art isn’t going to have the outcome she wanted and the other one who’s no more deserving in terms of self-sacrifice, but who’s probably going to get it all.
It’s a tragedy, in essence, Juliet’s fatal flaw being her inability to face up to reality. She should probably be pitied rather than punished, but this is a film with a pitiless logic. It ends badly.
But back to that spooky book, with all the medieval drawings. Yes the one that seems a bit superfluous as a plot driver. It’s probably kindest to see the satanic/witchcraft/whatever element as a catalyst rather than a cause. Certainly, anyone hoping for pointy hats or covens, horned beasts, cackling, Latin invocations, pentagrams and all the paraphernalia of the supernatural horror movie has come to the wrong place. The occult element could be removed entirely and the film wouldn’t suffer.
Sydney Sweeney (of The Handmaid’s Tale fame) plays Juliet as a wide-eyed innocent whose behaviour becomes more coquettish, polo necks and demure colours giving way to slightly racier items as her fixation (possession?) consumes her. As I say, Madison Iseman doesn’t get much of a look-in as the hotter/smarter/luckier/talented sister but it’s never in doubt who she is in this story – the golden child.
There’s a touch of Fame about it – kids in the performing arts game – and a fair bit of great piano playing. I just didn’t understand the point of the witchcraft element. I’m not sure that anyone did, really, right down to writer/director Zu Quirke. Perhaps the money men wanted it in, though it does at least lead to a splattery finale in which rough justice in meted out spectacularly though, to my eyes, unfairly.
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© Steve Morrissey 2020