Nocebo (2022)

Nocebo first published by Sight and Sound, Winter 2022-2023

Synopsis: The UK, today. Filipino maid Diana arrives on the doorstop of fashion designer Christine, offering to help cure a mysterious affliction plaguing her mind as much as her body. Coming with her own history of trauma, Diana slowly sets about confronting her new mistress with her responsibility for distant harm.

Review: Where a placebo is a pharmacologically inactive substance that can still bring positive therapeutic outcomes to a credulous patient, a nocebo (Latin for ‘I shall harm’) is the opposite, inactive but able to induce a negative response. Christine (Eva Green), a designer of children’s clothing, comes down with a debilitating illness that baffles her ‘marketing strategist’ husband Felix (Mark Strong) and affects her relationship with her young daughter Bobs (Billie Gadsdon). Whether the condition is physiological or merely psychological (Felix suggests it is ‘guilt’), Christine is crippled by its symptoms, including amnesia – which may explain why, when Filipino maid Diana (an extraordinary Chai Fonacier) turns up with a suitcase at her door, Christine does not remember her at all, let alone having hired her services. Yet soon this interloper has installed herself in the family’s opulent London home, and has taken upon herself the care of Christine’s problems with a programme of folk healing. This witchlike Ongo, however, with powers to destroy as much as cure, comes with her own undiagnosed history of suffering. 

Another collaboration from director Lorcan Finnegan and writer Garret Shanley (Without Name, 2016; Vivarium, 2019), Nocebo is the first co-production between Ireland and the Philippines, and criss-crosses between those countries (with Dublin doubling for the UK) as Christine’s pathologies play out against Diana’s backstory. At its heart is a clash of class and culture. For Christine’s First World problems prove intimately related to Diana’s Third World provenance, in a genre-fuelled narrative about Western exploitation which recalls the Vietnam sweatshop opening of Lars Klevberg’s Child’s Play (2019) or the Indian cotton-picking prologue to Elza Klephart’s fashion horror Slaxx (2020) – and which, like Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness (2022), lets a Filipino servant turn the tables on her socioeconomic superiors.

In delirious scenes of body horror, Christine sees – or dreams – her affliction as a tick that buries itself under her skin. This is a vivid image of a conscience pricked, with the wound left to fester untreated. Christine’s path of healing involves a confrontation with herself: acknowledging the truth of what she has done and how it has harmed others, and facing a fitting punishment. For Diana is not the first of Christine’s “little helpers”, and there is, inscribed in the old-fashioned sewing machine that Christine keeps as a vintage ornament, a legacy of casual colonial attitudes towards a marginalised proletariat. Nocebo is an angry allegory, marking the iniquities in global capitalism, while furnishing satisfaction in a fantasy of folk revenge and generational change.

strap: Lorcan Finnegan’s diseased domestic chiller is a true ‘exploitation picture’, where the cure for western rapacity is a bitter pill

Anton Bitel