Eva Green stars in Lorcan Finnegan’s atmospheric third feature, billed as the first Irish-Filipino co-production
Dir: Lorcan Finnegan. Ireland-Philippines. 2022. 87mins
Irish filmmaker Lorcan Finnegan is proving himself to be a master manipulator of benign space, turning the familiar or domestic into a nightmarish labyrinth of horror. He continues the thread started in his 2016 feature debut Without Name and the 2019 follow-up Vivarium with Nocebo, which sees an affluent home become the setting for an intense showdown between a successful woman and that which haunts her. Starring Eva Green and Mark Strong, Nocebo combines traditional Filipino folklore with modern concerns about cultural exploitation, and while it is prone to moments of melodramatic excess is still another intriguing work from one of Ireland’s most interesting talents.
Striking visuals and contemporary message
With backing from Screen Ireland, Media Finance Capital and the Film Development Council of The Philippines, Nocebo is billed as the first Irish-Filipino co-production; Finnegan and producer Brunella Cocchiglia pitched the project at the Macao Film Festival Project market in 2019, and partnered with Manila’s EpicMedia. Nocebo premieres at genre festival Sitges and will then open in US theatres on November 4 before moving to on-demand and a Shudder launch next year, where it should capture attention for its striking visuals and contemporary message.
Children’s fashion designer Christine (a game Eva Green) lives with her husband Felix (Mark Strong) and young daughter Roberta (Billie Gadsdon) in a huge city home. (The exact location is never revealed, although the film shot in Dublin.) Success is also evident in the two gleaming cars on the driveway and Roberta’s private school uniform. Bickering between Christine and Felix about who should take on the responsibility of school pickups is the only hint of any trouble in paradise.
Much as with Vivarium, in which an aspirational housing estate revealed itself to be an inescapable prison, Christine’s life proves to be a fragile idyll. After an early encounter with a mangy dog, which showers her in grotesque ticks, Christine’s health rapidly declines. Eight months later she is a shadow of her former self, suffering from amnesia, insomnia and paranoia, physical shakes and rigid limbs. While Felix may believe her ailments to be “all in her mind”, she’s genuinely suffering.
This is why, when Filipina nanny Diana (played by the superb Chai Fonacier, a native of Cebu) arrives at the door — adamant that her help has been called for, even though Christine cannot remember doing so — it doesn’t take long for Christine to latch onto her kindness; particularly when Diana begins to alleviate her symptoms with traditional folk healing. These intensify from an early tickling session which leaves Christine laughing, to more extreme remedies involving natural elements of water, hair and leaves which leave her sobbing on the floor.
These rituals are reminiscent of, but in visceral contrast to, the decidedly self-absorbed charm Christine repeats before every professional challenge, when she dons her red stilettos: ‘Lucky shoes, lucky shoes, make me win and never lose.’
Written by Without Name and Vivarium’s Garrett Shanley, this tension between the real and the imagined is at the heart of Nocebo; its title refers to a person developing negative symptoms from medication or therapy because they believe they could occur. And just like many female genre protagonists before her, Christine has to deal not only with the indignity of her ailments but also the lack of trust that Felix has in her illness as anything more than a manifestation of repressed emotions. That her daughter bears witness to these episodes adds insult to injury.
While some elements of Nocebo deserve their own chapter in Kier-La Janesse’s seminal text ‘House Of Psychotic Women’, as Christine becomes ever more screamingly hysterical in her psychosis, it is actually less concerned about her predicament and more with Diana’s. Regular Philippines-set flashbacks (written with the help of Cebu filmmaker Aa Cawdhury) reveal Diana’s own background, one that closely entwine with Christine’s. The more time the women spend together, the more their dynamic shifts. Christine’s patronising, vaguely racist tone turns to a desperate need for salvation, and Diana seems to draw strength from her dependency.
That it all ends in a climactic battle of wills is no surprise, and savvy viewers will have put the puzzle together well before then. Yet the journey is absorbing, for its craft as well as its performances. DoP Radek Ladczuk deploys the urgent, claustrophobic camerawork he used so successfully in Jennifer Kent’s Babadook and The Nightingale, focusing on small, everyday details — Christine’s red-ringed eyes, a steeply angled staircase, a silenced bird — that take on an eerie resonance. The colour palette is also particularly evocative, the deep red stain of lipstick, curtains, coats and those towering shoes a visual marker for both Christine’s unravelling mind and the real-world demons that may very well consume her.
Production companies: Lovely Productions, Wild Swim Films, EpicMedia
International sales: XYZ Films email@example.com.
Producers: Brunella Cocchiglia, Emily Leo
Screenplay: Garrett Shanley
Cinematography: Radek Ladczuk
Production design: Lucy van Lonkhuyzen
Editing: Tony Cranstoun
Main cast: Eva Green, Chai Fonacier, ,Mark Strong, Billie Gadsdon