Like that last great movie about musicianship as a bloodsport, “Nocturne” is filled with the horror of failure and mediocrity, as experienced by someone who has invested their self-esteem in hitting the right notes. Whereas Miles Teller’s jazz drummer in “Whiplash” goes through an emotional marathon practice by practice, Sydney Sweeney’s classical pianist in “Nocturne” is presented with a Faustian way around hard work, a shortcut to her hopes of becoming legend. She remains in the shadow of her twin sister Violet (Madison Iseman), who is also at the same classical music boarding school, but has already been accepted to Juilliard.
The source of this evil is creepy sheet music, which I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. The images inside it are startling, with detailed, medieval graphics that foreshadow the steps Juliet can take to her destiny (“Purification, “Sacrifice,” etc.), which are tactfully actualized by the script’s zig-zag plotting. While the sheet music can be the most common way for the story to build and foreshadow, it’s a brilliant piece of Quirke’s transfixing and unique horror: why wouldn’t a series of notes make for a cursed piece of mythology, and then be passed along by endless hopefuls? On top of that, the movie depicts its Faustian deal without any figure verbalizing it. The pain of “Nocturne,” of Juliet being told that it’s too late for her to be like her sister or eventually like pianists like Pollini or Gould, is motivation enough for her to accept the dream that the notes show her.
Long before the cursed sheet music appears, Sweeney illustrates Juliet with a disturbing uncertainty of just how far this antisocial pianist would go to actualize that dream. From the beginning, she starts off relatively muted, especially as Juliet isolates herself from the world with a stern lock of her bedroom door, or pair of headphones. Throughout, her eyes beget desperation and intensity, and this builds on that sense of being so desperate for the end result that she loses focus on the music itself (she blacks out when she does play, as if it wasn’t even her playing). It’s an incredible performance from Sweeney, who shows many different shades of melancholia and mania with such acute work, all while picking away at the fortitude that Juliet had originally built around herself for the sake of her single goal.