Stars: Eva Green, Chai Fonacier, Mark Strong, Billie Gadsdon, Cathy Belton
By Harris Dang
“Nocebo” (2022) tells the story of Christine (Eva Green), a fashion designer who has become mysteriously afflicted with an unknown disease. The doctors are flummoxed as to what the disease actually is and her husband Felix (Mark Strong) and daughter Bobs (BillieGadsdon) are left at their wit’s end. But help arrives for the two of them with the presence of Diana (Chai Fonacier), a Filipino maid who uses traditional folk methods to tend to the affliction. However, her presence in their home begins to startle the family as devastating secrets are revealed, which could bring them all to their breaking point.
“Nocebo” is the latest film from Lorcan Finnegan, an Irish filmmaker who is best known for his sophomore film “Vivarium” (2019); a film that is memorable for its striking visual design, mystery box narrative and high concepts. For his latest effort, he switches themes from crippling suburbia to cultural exploitation and it is the first Irish/Filipino co-production.
The best of horror in storytelling always relies on solid, profound ideas that chill, provoke and provide food for thought. Without going into in-depth plot spoilers, the presence of Diana provides plenty of dramatic backbone that not only subverts dated film tropes (cultural exoticism being the major one) but also provides a message that is prevalent of the world today (the Philippines in terms of colonization and oppression). Considering that the film is a Filipino co-production, the cultural representation is treated seriously and the filmmakers do not resort to ideas or portrayals that are insensitive or offensive. On an amusing note, Guitar Safety Cigarettes get shown a lot in this film.
The ideas and themes are also portrayed in a strikingly haunting fashion. Utilizing the use of fire, Filipino folklore and camera angles that bury deep into the mindset of the characters (the split diopter shots, the shoulder-mounted POV shots, the static wide shots), the production values in “Nocebo” are stellar from across the board thanks to cinematographer Radek Ładczuk, editor Tony Cranstoun and production designer Lucy van Lonkhuyzen.
That is not to say that the film boils itself in complete dread. Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley divulge in dark humour that makes fun of the situation through its Caucasian characters. The carefree, self-absorbed existence is milked for laughs (Green is unafraid of playing her role in a theatrical manner), the desperation of said characters (“Lucky shoes, lucky shoes, make me win and never lose” is a repeating credo that Christine lives up to) and certain horror tropes are subverted to the point of being amusing i.e. Strong’s role being the husband that is disbelieved by everyone around him after being suspicious of Diana.
The performances from its principal cast are well-done and are completely in line with Finnegan’s vision. But it is the women that stand out. Green is no stranger to the horror genre and is certainly no stranger in portraying psychologically stricken women and here in “Nocebo”, she plays the role with vigour and a subtle knowingness that is very entertaining and compelling. The star of “Nocebo” here is Fonacier. Her minute stature, her enigmatic line deliveries and her piercing eyes contain a marvel of dramatic potential and she makes the most out of her murky character. Whether she is establishing a convincing bond with both Christine and Bobs or amusingly standing up to Felix, her performance is strongly felt and fits in Finnegan’s vision perfectly.
As great as the performances, ideas and production values are, the mystery in the narrative leaves a lot to be desired. While there are plenty of moments that will keep the audience on the edge, the revelations in the story are quite predictable and are asymptomatic to a lack of suspense. However, the revelations do manage to hit if the film were seen as a message movie; a moral lesson wrapped up as a horror story.
Overall, “Nocebo” works as it is packaged in a professional manner thanks to its strong performances, striking production values and prescient ideas and themes that manages to get its message across. Recommended.
“Nocebo” is out in US cinemas now and will be released on Demand and Digital on 22nd November; courtesy of RLJE Films.