Published Oct 13, 2020The Italian composer Giuseppe Tartini allegedly once said that he dreamed the devil had appeared to him sitting on the end of his bed. The devil began to play Tartini's violin, creating a performance so magnificent it took the composer's breath away. He made it his goal to recreate what he had heard in his dream, creating what is now famously known as the Devil's Trill Sonata. But to Tartini, this piece was inferior to what he had heard, his ambition to recreate it failing so terribly he thought of abandoning music forever. This violin sonata is what drives the events of writer-director Zu Quirke's Nocturne, its fatal significance linking the fate of one character to another in a film about how those blinded by ambition can tear their world apart.
The film follows two pianists and fraternal twin sisters, Vivian (Madison Iseman) and Juliet (Sydney Sweeney). Vivian has it all. She's the outgoing, more accomplished musician who's happy in love and has achieved what most artists only dream of – getting accepted to Juilliard. The shy, unconfident Juliet, however, got rejected. They both attend an elite arts boarding school that's grieving the recent loss of a brilliant violinist, Moira (played by violinist Ji Eun Hwang), to suicide. In Moira's honour, the school hosts a concerto competition, and the sisters fight to get a spot. In preparation for their big solo, what you could suppose would be a healthy bit of competition turns into a jealous rage, especially on Juliet's part, as her blind ambition threatens to change the course of both their lives forever.
In the film's first half, Juliet comes across a theory notebook belonging to Moira. While her violin's tune is still heard haunting the halls, it's this notebook that will unlock the mystery surrounding her death and where her spirit still resides, and as Juliet holds onto it, supernatural forces are unleashed. Containing mysterious carvings, art, and Tartini's devilish sonata, Juliet believes that Moira's notes are aiding her in becoming more confident. Slowly, there's a change in Juliet as she becomes almost unrecognizable from the character we meet at the beginning of the film. The film's supernatural elements take shape in the form of a blinding yellow light that appears only for Juliet to see. It guides her, transporting her into disorientating, frightening visions of the future – their lives intertwined. As the film progresses, what's real and what's all in Juliet's mind becomes blurred, and the film's logic equally becomes increasingly confusing.
For a film about music, it's both a strength and a weakness. There's an excellent showcase of classical music here, which makes for much more appeal than many of the film's supernatural elements. Then there's the sound design, which, while utilized effectively as a reflection of Juliet's transformation, is incredibly jarring and makes you jump as it arrives out of nowhere. There are also unnecessary and exhausted tropes that don't add anything to the narrative other than to pile on to the strain that's already so significant on the central relationship. It's a relationship whose performances the film rides on.
If it weren't for the strength of its performers, namely Sweeney and Iseman, Nocturne would continue the bad streak of this Blumhouse-Amazon collab. They both excel in producing an unsettling tale of rivalry à la Black Swan – if only all its elements were so masterful. Their relationship erodes before our eyes, and as the cracks spread further and wider, we can't help but let it swallow us.
Nocturne's message of the importance and cultural significance of classical music reminds the audience that the appeal of such art is dying as audiences dwindle with changing generations. As Juliet sells her soul to the craft, the film hits with a stark reminder that she's aspiring to pay for an audience that may not even be there in 10 years. (Blumhouse / Amazon)