‘Nocturne’ Analysis: Sacrifice In A World Of Black And White
Content Warning: This analysis alludes to suicide.
Please note that this review contains spoilers.
‘Nocturne’ Analysis: Sacrifice In A World Of Black And White
“Welcome to the Blumhouse” introduced October with a collection of four new thrillers on Amazon Prime Video. In what seems to be a cross-collaborative derivative of Black Swan, Whiplash, and Suspiria, one of the four installations Nocturne tells the story of a primitive 17-year old pianist, Juliet (Sydney Sweeney), who becomes obsessed with her performance skills in a haunting manner. META sat down with the director, Zu Quirke, at a Blumhouse round table and discussed the inspiration for her first feature film and how wardrobe played a large part in representing its sentiments.
Nocturne opens with a chilling sacrifice in which a virtuoso, Moira (Ji Eun Hwang), rehearses a violin concerto. Once she finishes, she silently walks towards the yellow light peaking through the curtains behind her and jumps off the balcony. In a music academy swarming with prodigies, competition is tight. Juliet continues to live under her older twin sister’s shadow until the spirit of the late violin prodigy Moira begins to haunt her in ritualistic ways. When Juliet comes into possession of Moira’s notebook, illustrations within it manifest into a sequence of events that begins to play out in Juliet’s life, which suspiciously benefits her performance capabilities. Overcome with sudden confidence and passion, Juliet transforms from a chaste introvert to a cunning force–for better or worse.
The black and white mythology penned in Moira’s notebook translates visually onscreen to Juliet’s bland, black-and-white life. She is a twin from a cookie-cutter family who is constantly overshadowed by her sister, Vivian (Madison Iseman). However, as Juliet reflects on her self-proclaimed failure, she finds solace in the black and white keys of a grand piano. The more she indulges in her music, the more her intentions transform into that of malice. As we see her purity subside and her evil arise, a bright sun that only Juliet can see begins to shine whenever an event from Moira’s notebook is completed. Soon enough, this music entrances her and illuminates her world in Technicolor–or as we later learn, specifically yellow Technicolor.
Throughout the film, Juliet is exclusively seen in monochrome clothing–specifically white. At the round table, Quirke shared her experiences with costume designer Chrisopher Oroza and their discussions of how to incorporate white wardrobe on screen. “White is a color of purity, but it is also a color of sacrifice; traditionally, sacrificial victims would be clothed in white,” says Quirke when asked about her styling choices on set. In a sense, Juliet is that of a fallen angel–she begins in pure white as an innocent young woman, however, as her waning morality escalates into complete darkness, her fashion follows suit. In orthodox culture, white is seen as a symbol of purity and cleanliness. Initially, Juliet embodies a chaste pianist but as Moira’s notebook overtakes the events of her life, Juliet’s purity transforms into something darker. Rather than white being the orthodox representation of purity, Moira’s notebook transforms Juliet to the point of demonic possession in which the initial purity of white transforms into that of sacrifice. At the end of the film, Juliet is shown exclusively in white as she personifies a self-sacrificial figure, surrendering herself to the qualms of the world around her.
Male figures in Juliet’s life also play into how her clothing reflects her behavior. During her sexual encounter with Vivian’s boyfriend, Max (Jacques Colimon), Juliet is seen in white. In a somewhat virginal manner, her transition from representing the purity of white becomes a sacrificial purity tainted with sexuality. It is only until after she taints her purity with this sexuality where she begins to wear black. Another male figure that influences Juliet’s transition into womanhood is Mike (A.J. Tannen), a brooding male piano teacher. He embodies an inexplicable force of desire for Juliet to get better–not necessarily to impress him, but in spite of him. During private rehearsals, Juliet is clothed in simple white tees, until she meets the seductive Dr. Cask (Ivan Shaw), who is a proponent of Juliet’s devilish acts. In most scenes with Cask, Juliet swaps her pale clothing for more sultry ebonies, representing her soon-to-come full-fledged transformation into that of a sexual being and a fallen angel.
At the senior concerto recital, Juliet flaunts an elegant white gown for her final performance, which eerily matches that of Moira’s sacrificial white gown at the beginning of the film. In explaining the creative structure of the film, Quirke says she wanted to create a “bookend between these two characters,” and the mirrored acts did just that. Additionally, Juliet’s performance gown contrasts that of the black sculpture with which she impales herself, leaving audiences with a gory image of red, white, and black–a tainted reminder of the fallen angel she becomes, from the heaven that is the rooftop of her concert hall to the hell that is the entrance to her music academy that drove her into this frenzy in the first place. In essence, the practical advantages of styling actors in white allows for full creative exposure to the contrast of blood on white. In the candid words of Quirke herself, “blood on black surfaces is not as visually stimulating.”
Visually, Nocturne uses notes of monochrome to contrast artistic zeal with Quirke’s mythological twist on demonic possession. As we follow along Juliet’s journey from purity to sacrifice, her clothing works alongside her hellish transformation. In what seems to be a collage of inked illustrations transcending the pages and manifesting itself into a world where Juliet fully embodies the obsessed artist motif, the sequence of horrific events play out in undeniable Technicolor, illuminating a haunting world--and wardrobe--of black and white.