Director – Lorcan Finnegan – 2022 – UK, Ireland – Cert. 15 – 96m
A mother and fashion designer’s stress levels increase when she hires a too good to be true Filipino au pair – out in UK cinemas on Friday, December 9th
A nocebo is a negative placebo – a belief that some factor will cause a medical or psychological condition to get worse, which it then does.
Christine (Eva Green), a high-flying fashion designer, and her husband Felix (Mark Strong), who works in advertising, lead pressured lives, and they have a daughter Roberta, known to her friends as Bobs (Billie Gadsdon), at primary school. Deciding which of them is going to drop Bobs off at / pick her up from school is always a challenge.
Christine is in the middle of a shoot involving child models when she receives a phone call with bad news about “they’re pulling out the bodies” and has a nervous breakdown, suddenly experiencing bizarre and horrifying hallucinations, with everyone she sees on the set spouting boils, a fate also visited on a mysterious, blind dog covered in sores. A tiny beetle burrows into her neck, later resulting in an itchy sore.
She takes time off work and sleeps with special breathing apparatus at night. After eight months, she makes an effort to get back into the fashion game. Stressed, Christine starts to forget things – for instance, both that she’s hired an au pair to help out and what the girl’s start date is, so that a Filipino named Diana (Chai Fonacier) showing up on her doorstep completely takes her by surprise. Nevertheless, Christine moves Diana in, setting her up in an upstairs room of the large family home. There are flashbacks into Diana’s history involving her daughter Anima and Diana’s work in a textile sweatshop.
Diana, who seems far too pleasant to be true, insists she’s here to help. As she unpacks alone, Diana sets up a little altar with various personal photos and artefacts in the room’s fireplace hearth, makes two ritual footprints in the ashes then puts a suitcase in front of the grate and summons the little beetle which she puts securely away in a matchbox from which it can’t escape.
Then bad things start happening to first Christine and later Felix. Her medicines (she refers to them as meds, presumably for the benefit of the US audience) vanish from the bathroom cabinet. Felix is divebombed by Bobs’ pet canary, which he accidentally kills in the incident. No-one sees the tiny beetle crawl out of the dead bird on the staircase step below.
A further subplot involves Diana being possessed by a hatchling bird after swallowing it whole, implying that some supernatural power controls her and that she isn’t responsible for her actions.
Finnegan and writer Garet Shanley (who previously collaborated on Vivarium, 2019) have a lot of fun with all this, pulling out all the stops, and their script is lovingly realised and crafted by cast and crew.
Alas, instead of walking the tightrope between whether or not (a) this beetle actually exists outside of Christine’s imagination (b) Diana is possessed by said beetle and (c) Diana is really inflicting atrocities on the family – which could have been truly unsettling in the manner of The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961) or The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963), the script comes down firmly on the side of, yes, the beetle is real, it possesses Diana, and she is definitely doing these things.
Then it plays them out in an increasingly silly manner, regurgitating every other horror cliché in the book. This is a shame when you can see the amount of solid work that’s gone into the production, especially when everything that’s wrong with this could so easily have been fixed at the script level.
There’s a twist towards the end. I won’t reveal what it is, but I will say that the revelation, when it finally comes, is so predictable and obvious that you can see it coming a mile off. Doubly annoying, this trivialising twist relates to what the film is about, which is a significant and important subject. This could have been such a great film, but it misses it by a sliver and falls flat on its face. So near – and yet, so far.
Nocebo is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, December 9th.