Werner Jane’s review published on Letterboxd:
Music is a bloodsport.
Is it just me or does the Welcome to the Blumhouse collection just get better and better with each film? But oh my, what in the world did we do to deserve The Wrestler, Black Swan, Whiplash, The Perfection, and now Nocturne, to grace this beautiful, beautiful fantasy world of ours, shine it up real nice, turn that sumbitch sideways and stick it straight up its candyass! That said, competitive arts is such an expansive area for fun, gritty and extremely intense cinematics to be made and devoured with the utmost of ferocious form possible, and that's exactly what this film has done yet again. Written and directed by the debuting Zu Quirke, Nocturne thrusts the ideals of piano concertos with those of the extremities of competition and satanic esotericism, slowly building into a symphonic web of toxic ambition, hubris and jealousy.
First of all, the story is brought forward by the temptations of Jules, the vindicated elite piano student who's constantly overshadowed by her more socially popular and academically successful twin sister Vivian, as Jules' fiery desire to be of equal status to her sister after years of personal torment leads to an encounter with a Faustian pact through the magical diary of a recently deceased fellow music prodigy. The character work and choices here is a highly preferred one for me especially with the use of teenage sisters and their serious sibling rivalry, compared to Black Swan's and Whiplash's pure concentration toward their main characters. Quirke's sharp story outline, while sharing similar DNA with the aforementioned movies of its subgenre, is honestly well-founded and secure in its treatment of narrative events. The situation regarding our protagonist is grounded and relatable, her personality and the dark things she desire so much as to sacrifice her own soul possess a degree of malevolence, yet the sympathy for them never falters one bit throughout because they're simply recognizable as one of us. Jules is jealous, vengeful and disrespectful, albeit you can't help but feel immensely close to who she's and what she yearns for; her bloody search for greatness through any and every measure possible, even if it means to steal her very own sister's essence. Sure, talk about the plot and the plot itself feels rather familiar and its nihilistic spirit a beat for beat reminiscent of Aronofsky's trademarks, and the alteration of the setting from ballet to music academy and drugs to literal satanic pact can immediately be felt. In this case, written as a side piece than prime plot device, the mystical elements do help in distingushing the identity of Nocturne and likewise establishing an artfully weirder representation of both the supernatural and the psychological; thereby cementing the classic approach of multiple interpretations, particularly and perfectly utilized for its haunting ending which lingers on long after the credit rolls. Moreover, to further comment, the dialogue is also the weakest aspect of Quirke's script as it tends to "tell, not show" with explicit wording that, at one point, causes a big eye roll though ultimately saved by the masterclass acting performances that deliver them.
Direction-wise, Quirke has in her a remarkable flair for creating exquisite, purposeful imagery alongside a handsomely composed structure to compliment her narrative work. Because of that, Nocturne is at its best as a horror-drama that focuses on the profound character of Jules and her stumbling upon the Lord of Darkness, their visual portrayal beautifully balanced without an itch of inadequacy detected. Quirke's handling is all about the angst, hard tears and thankless sweat that pervade the woeful world of Nocturne; tampon-dripping, virginity-spilling, devil-worshipping, the pointlessness with the idea of everyone's done that and why should you. Furthermore, the horror sequences are bittersweetly imagined (and much better placed than in The Lie and Black Box), metaphoric and necessary to evoke Jules' inner turmoil, whether they're real or not really depends on the viewer's interpretation. See, that's the alluring artistry depicted by Quirke that I very much adore here, as the audience can choose what kind of reality the story takes place in and it wouldn't matter due to the fact that either can be correct. A lot of modern horror filmmakers try to commit just that yet their understanding's only limited to showcasing the dominance of one reality whilst downplaying the effect of the other. And I'm glad this film appears to avoid that fault by the end. What's more, Nocturne is stylishly and sensitively shot by DP Carmen Cabana, continually adaptive to the young director's zesty arthouse symbolism with the colder linings of Blumhouse's horror exterior. Integrated with the edgy sound design and the viewer just got themselves the best assembled feature out of the Welcome to the Blumhouse. No contest there.
In addition, I can't express this enough, the main acting performances in this film are downright impeccable to behold. Sydney Sweeney (Euphoria) is a rising star and she earns that cupcake with every ounce of her being. Her performance as Jules is amazing and terrifying at once, capable of infusing spectacular level of profundity and empathy to such a "vile" character whose actions are at the very least understandable to those who've experienced her tragedy. Extremely crisp as well as a natural, Sweeney's aptitude for commanding and elevating every scene she's in shouldn't be left understated; she practically drives what the film has to say when its own script struggles to enunciate so. Definitely one of my personal favorite performances of the year. On the other side of the post, playing as her twin sister Vivian, Madison Iseman (Jumanji, Goosebumps 2) more than hold her own against Sweeney during their shared scenes together. Although she isn't shown much in the film, I feel like her delivery of her lines is slightly superior to the latter.
Overall, I actually did expect Nocturne to be better than the other three films of Welcome to the Blumhouse collection, but I didn't expect it to be this good. On its own, it's a very well put horror-drama with considerable thought imbued within its craft (though many has been done in movies mentioned in this review), and certainly one of the best horror surprises of this year, so far. Based on its subject matter, I prefer this film over Black Swan and The Perfection if only for Sweeney's likable presence and the story's supernatural elements.