Also reviewed this week: Pinocchio and Ghosts Of Baggotonia
Nocebo (16, 97mins)
Eva Green has always been one of cinema’s most eloquent sufferers and she gets to do plenty of it in Nocebo, Irish director Lorcan Finnegan’s third feature.
A nervy fashion designer on the verge of big things, Christine (Green) is showing her new children’s line to a big buyer when she is approached by a large and rabid-looking dog.
It could be a hallucination, but while she stares bug-eyed in horror, the mangy mutt shakes itself in slow motion, sending scales and scabs and God knows what else flying: a large, flea-like creature then embeds itself in Christine’s neck.
Some months later, we find that Christine’s life has been transformed by a debilitating and mysterious illness. Fever sweats, extreme lethargy and recurring visions have seriously compromised her career and put a strain on her marriage.
She lives in a vast town house (Dublin’s Palmerston Park standing in for an affluent corner of London) with her husband Felix (Mark Strong) and young daughter Bobs (Billie Gadsdon), and Felix is visibly exasperated by his wife’s sudden decline.
Since you asked, ‘nocebo’ is a condition whereby a treatment’s efficacy is compromised by patient scepticism: Christine’s taking lots of pills to treat her illness, yet all they seem to do is make her worse. But everything changes when Diana (Chai Fonacier) turns up.
Christine is perplexed when the small but formidable Filipina woman appears on her doorstep, insisting that Christine herself has employed her as a nanny. Could I have done this, she wonders, and then forgotten?
But Diana immediately starts bustling about and while she might not sing like Mary Poppins, she soon becomes an indispensable part of the household, cooking delicious meals, forming a bond with the initially dubious Bobs, and rapidly improving Christine’s health through the use of folk remedies.
Felix is deeply sceptical — his only function in this film — and when Christine starts getting better, he is disinclined to believe that massages, steam treatments and herbal hocus pocus have brought about this miraculous change.
In Diana’s attic room, Felix finds a shrine in the fireplace, with candles, incense and photos of a little girl. What on earth is going on here, he wonders.
Lorcan Finnegan impressed many with his debut feature Without Name, an eerie forest-set drama with echoes of Ben Wheatley and 1970s British horror.
And while his second film, Vivarium, was a bit of a let-down, it showed commendable ambition. Garret Shanley was his writing partner on those two films and this one. In Nocebo, they have produced a comparative rarity — a horror film with a brain.
Christine and Felix are not nasty people, just your average entitled bourgeois couple, whose expectations of comfort and plenty have blinded them to wider geopolitical issues.
Christine’s ‘fast fashion’ lines are reasonably priced, but must have been made somewhere: she knows exactly where and even makes jokes about her “little helpers”. Perhaps her health issues and mental meltdown have something to do with a bad conscience, but whatever it is, Diana will winkle it out.
There are lots of big ideas floating around in Nocebo, from global iniquities to middle class smugness, but it’s also a horror film, and a stylishly presented one at that.
With a budget decent enough to permit location shoots in the Philippines, Finnegan flits between Christine’s present and Diana’s past, giving the maid a coherent and credible back story.
Green’s Christine is a bag of nerves, who staggers from one catastrophe to the next, but we never really get to see beyond the suffering to find out whether she’s worth caring about. And there are plotting leaps that do test the viewer’s patience.
But there’s much to admire in Nocebo and overall, Finnegan balances thriller aspects and supernatural elements with great skill, and his direction has flashes of brilliance.
Rating: Four stars
Pinocchio (Netflix, 117mins)
Bleak as winter, impressively made, Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio is the latest of a rash of adaptations of Carlo Collodi’s classic children’s novel and is, without a doubt, the darkest.
Del Toro’s stop-motion animation has moved the action from 1880s Tuscany to the 1930s, when fascism conspires to make the meddlesome puppet’s journey towards wisdom even more eventful.
Made by Geppetto (voiced by David Bradley), a carpenter heartbroken by the death of his real son, Pinocchio (Gregory Mann) is brought to life by a mysterious spirit and immediately starts getting into trouble.
Not keen on school, he runs off with a carnival ringmaster called Count Volpe (Christoph Waltz), and then gets mixed up with Mussolini’s bully boys.
His conscience, Cricket (Ewan McGregor), is such a pompous little windsock that I welcomed his frequent squashings, but not so much the strange songs which punctuate the story.
The film’s brutality is in keeping with Collodi’s story, but Del Toro’s Pinocchio is hard to root for and I’m not sure who this film is aimed at.
Rating: Three stars
Ghosts Of Baggotonia (12A, 80mins)
Less a documentary than a kind of arthouse fever dream, Alan Gilsenan’s Ghosts Of Baggotonia fuses the director’s own childhood memories with stories of the underground cultural scene that existed along Baggot Street in the 1950s.
Gilsenan grew up on Raglan Road, memorialised in song by Patrick Kavanagh, and the poet’s spirit dominates this chimerical film, standing head and shoulders above the other artists and writers who gathered in post-war Dublin 2.
Through archive footage and the recorded recollections of witnesses like theatre director Alan Simpson and artist John Ryan, Gilsenan raises echoes of the fabled time when Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien, JP Donleavy, Patrick Swift, Lucian Freud and others caroused their way through legendary nights in the area’s pubs.
More poignantly, he uses the photos of Neville Johnson to show how much the area has changed. Beautifully photographed by Gilsenan, Ghosts Of Baggotonia elegantly traces the shadows of the past.
Rating: Four stars