Christine’s (Eva Green) perfect life comes crashing down with a phone call on what should be the best day of her professional career. A children’s clothing fashion designer, her latest catwalk is proving an immense success once the buzzing pushes her into the next room to learn horrible news for which we can only hypothesize from the word “bodies.” As shock and horror wipe the smile from her face, she hangs up with a quietly distraught attempt to pretend none of it happened. That’s when Christine spies the blind dog standing in the corner of the room. She watches as it approaches, the masses of ticks covering its flesh made visible in the light. It shakes. A mite burrows into her neck. And everything turns upside-down.
Despite nobody else seeing the dog, a mark is present on the back of Christine’s neck. Are the debilitating shakes, pains, and hallucinations a product of this attack? Or, as her husband Felix (Mark Strong) believes, has the guilt borne from that tragic news manifested as a physical ailment that cannot be traced to anything besides her psychological anguish? Does it matter? At a certain point, illness is illness. If whatever afflicts Christine keeps her unemployable and unable to trust herself in public, its origins prove meaningless in comparison to its effect. Her memory has begun failing so thoroughly that she can’t be relied upon to care for her daughter (Billie Gadsdon’s Bobs). She doesn’t even remember hiring the Filipino caretaker (Chai Fonacier’s Diana) standing at their door.
Director Lorcan Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley are very forthcoming with their approach to Nocebo as Irishmen telling a story hinged upon a culturally Filipino sense of folklore. It started with an idea to delve into the notion of placebos and nocebos insofar as how our minds can tell our bodies something is happening based solely on the belief it is. Finnegan recalled home remedies his parents used on him as a child with nursery-rhyme incantations to help soothe his fears. They harken back to Ireland’s animist leanings (all natural things have spirits that influence our world) before Christianity replaced them—something that’s true of the Philippines as well. How did that shift impact their cultures? How did capitalism facilitate it by placing profit above humanity?
While those questions linger in the background, however, the most pressing inquiry is whether Diana can really heal Christine’s pain via ancient techniques steeped in the supernatural fantasy that she was imbued with the power to understand nature by an old woman she watched die many years ago. Diana isn’t one to deny the far-fetched nature of her story either. When Christine doubts its validity, the woman laughs saying the “why” of her abilities are inconsequential to their strength. Nothing matters beyond Christine believing that what Diana is doing to relieve the pain works. Whether tickles, blowing air into a jar of dirty water, or the burning of incense—does she feel healed? Placebos are medicine if the desired outcome of improvement results. Our minds control everything.
Where, then, is the harm? If Christine has never felt better, Felix cannot help but interfere. Is it because he can see something his wife can’t? Or is it because he’s rendered helpless beyond watching from afar as everything he knows and believes (the science behind bottles upon bottles of pharmaceuticals their doctor prescribed) is phased out of her routine? He feels threatened by Diana. He worries that her manipulations—regardless of their efficacy—are in service of something nefarious. Because he lives in a consumerist world. He makes his living off its back as a marketing “strategist” who’s keenly aware of what it means to sell products to susceptibly vulnerable customers. So you have to laugh when he calls Diana a “snake-oil merchant.” The entitled gall.
That said, he might not be wrong—this film is called Nocebo, after all. It’s telling us Christine’s mind is being fed something that’s causing it to harm her own body. Is Diana her savior? Or is ensuring the tick and dog continue wreaking havoc on her psyche? Finnegan and Shanley do a wonderful job keeping motivations ambiguous in this way, even as they gradually reveal connections between these two women via memories (both giving birth to daughters) and pain (the fire and screaming seen and heard whenever Christine falls into a trance to confront the evil inside her seems borne of a much different world than the affluently pristine one within which she resides). Will that confrontation only make things worse?
For every potential display of menace (Diana whispering to a tick crawling around her room’s floor) comes one of pure compassion. She is helping Christine, whether her intentions are pure or not. Her smile is always genuine even when it’s eviscerating an opponent who’s unprepared for just how damaging that confident strength is against their rage-fueled bluster. Maybe Diana is here to stop an evil she’s been tracking from her homeland. Maybe she’s searching for a final goodbye with her daughter, whose spirit seems present in Christine’s house. Getting close to Bobs is thus as easily about healing from her own loss as it is preparing a vessel for reclamation. Altruism and vengeance swirl as the filmmakers’ wheel spins with anticipation until they’re ready to reveal their secrets.
Their climax matches it with a rousing sequence of nightmarish sights putting everyone where they need for the truth to finally get exposed. And while everything you can probably guess early on does more or less come to fruition, it won’t entirely be how you thought. Because karmic retribution can create as well as destroy. Nature renders death a doorway to new life and vice-versa. The power to heal can also consume. Green and Fonacier are both fantastic within this evolving dynamic, their inevitable end a mutually brutal sacrifice meant to close a broken loop rather than continue some damaging cycle. Their characters are so complex that their best moments are those subtle shimmers revealing true natures beneath old façades. A reckoning awaits.
Nocebo hits limited release on November 4 and VOD/Digital HD on November 22 before streaming on Shudder at a later date.