CHENNAI: Rivalry in the art world is all too common, and Zu Quirke, in her directorial debut, tells audiences a fascinating story of hatred and jealousy between two siblings — twins, in fact — in “Nocturne,” now released on Amazon Prime as one of four horror features under the series “Welcome to the Blumhouse.” Playing along the lines of Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 psychological horror “Black Swan,” which opened the 67th Venice Film Festival, “Nocturne” also explores tension in the world of art. Where “Black Swan” revolved around ballet, however, “Nocturne” is set in a music school.
While the dangers of art academies are a recurring theme in cinema, “Nocturne” manages to go beyond these, examining the angst that comes with harming a sibling. In fact, I felt that the movie worked best where it stepped away from cliches. Quirke does a great job when she shows how competitive stress can break a person, pushing him or her to the edge.
Teenage Juliet Lowe (Sydney Sweeney, whom we saw in “Euphoria”) is the ugly duckling, more gifted in her piano skills than in her looks. Her twin, Vivian (Madison Iseman, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”), older by a few minutes, is daringly sexy, a far more accomplished pianist and a darling of the school. She has a steady boyfriend, while Juliet is shy, introverted and has never been kissed. In one of the most dramatic scenes, she screams at her mentor, Roger (John Rothman): “I’ve never smoked a cigarette, and I’ve never owned a PlayStation!”
When she chances upon a notebook left behind by a student labeled “Mad Moira,” whose death opens the movie, Juliet realizes that the Satanic drawings inside it give her a strange power as she caresses the keys of the piano. There is sheet music from a Saint-Saens piece that Vivian had planned to use in her audition. Juliet takes it as well to spite and upstage her sister.
The heated exchanges between the sisters are impressive and reveal a fair degree of acting skills. In one of them, Vivian spews: “We’re both failures. But I have an excuse. You are just mediocre.” Earlier, in a wicked move, Juliet gets her twin to slip and break her arm. Sweeney is admirable both as a docile girl and a scheming saboteur. Iseman is a formidable match, but the script does not give her enough room to fully show her range.
Nocturne ends on a tongue-in-cheek note — fitting for a rollercoaster of a film.