Lorcan Finnegan has a lot to say about the negative effects of capitalism and consumerism. In his 2019 feature film Vivarium, Finnegan uses a young couple buying a house in a suburban neighborhood to depict how capitalism pushes people to follow societal norms and get stuck in the mundanity of life. Finnegan explores capitalism again in his new film, Nocebobut frames his discussion through the wealth gap between rich and poor.
Eva Green stars as Christine, a fashion designer plagued by a mysterious illness that limits her ability to work and form relationships. When Diana (Chai Fonacier), a Filipina nanny, begins helping Christine with her illness, traditional healing methods work. As Christine relies on Diana for more help, her marriage to Felix (Mark Strong) suffers, jeopardizing their family’s well-being. The psychological thriller is a fascinating examination of placebo and nocebo effects and a stunning commentary on consumer culture.
In an interview with Digital Trends, Finnegan discusses nocebos, capitalism, Eva Green and how a connection between Filipino shamanism and Irish folklore inspired her latest film.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: After watching the movie, I went to my kitchen. I go to turn on the faucet and I see this bug crawling on the wall and I’m like, “You’re kidding me with the bugs.” I killed him so quickly. I wasn’t taking any risks.
Lorcan Finnegan: [Laughs] I kinda forget that element of the movie, actually.
More bugs for me. I want to know what first inspired your curiosity about nocebos and the nocebo effect.
I read a book which is actually called It’s by a medical anthropologist, Shelley Adler. It was just an interesting area. Attic [Shanley], the writer I work with, also read the book, and we started researching placebos. They are the opposite of nocebos. Our research kind of took us to the Philippines, oddly enough. Going deeper into this, we kind of realized that placebos were tied to shamanism, just like nocebos.
Ireland had a folk healing tradition, you know. These powerful women in society are called wise women. This kind of thing was eradicated with the arrival of Christianity and then later with colonization by Great Britain. As we have looked more into shamanism and contemporary shamanism, it still exists in the Philippines, especially in Cebu, an island, and Siquijor, an island next to Cebu. So we started looking at that more and making those connections between our [Irish] folklore and their folklore from the Philippines, which is strangely related even to very specific things.
We went to the Philippines to find out more. Obviously, the Philippines was settled by the Spanish about 10 years before Ireland was settled by the British. They brought in Christianity, and they kind of wiped out those mighty healers called Babylon. When we went to the Philippines in 2019, we visited witch doctors, practitioners of Kulam, which resembles black magic, and tribal leaders.
We were able to understand it more completely and started to see this other relationship that was kind of tied together, that creates the story between the eradication of these kinds of nature-based beliefs and capitalism and colonization. They are all somehow connected.
Now the Southeast Asian countries, in particular, are still somehow colonized by the West and exploited by them in a new neo-colonial way. So we thought that was an interesting way to get into our story, and that’s kind of how it all started. It’s a long way to get into it. [Laughs]
You touched on the themes of capitalism and consumer culture. You have addressed these themes in previous films. In Nocebo, you see the gap between rich and poor. Why do you continue to explore these themes in your films?
Interesting. Well, I mean that’s one of the problems of mankind. It’s one of the main causes of all kinds of conflicts and wars and everything. This kind of massive gap between rich and poor. It keeps growing and growing. Yeah, I think that kind of injustice usually pisses us off, and that, in turn, is a provocation to make it work.
Eva is fascinating in this film. For his previous choices in big budget and genre films like the James Bond movie Casino Royale, she always goes there. That’s the best way for me to describe his performance. How would you describe Eva?
Yeah, she’s amazing. She’s an amazing actress and she’s totally committed. For Eva too, in this story, the themes that we explore, she is quite politicized. She thought it was important for her to stay stuck, even though she was playing an unsavory character. [Laughs]
It’s a challenge.
Yes exactly. She is great. It’s cool to work with her.
As good as Eva is, the performance that will stick with most people is Chai’s. I think other people will also have this reaction. During the casting process, what traits were you looking for to fill this role and how did you come to select Chai?
Well, that was interesting. After we went to the Philippines and decided to go there with this story, we launched the project in Macau, China. We recruited these co-producers from the Philippines and Epic Media. We could understand the nuances of the culture a little more, but we still wanted to make sure we got it right, so we brought in this writer, Ara Chawdhury from Cebu.
Our character was then based in Cebu. We had to find a Cebuano–speaking actor. I really wanted to make sure they were a true representation of a Cebuano woman. We didn’t have a huge pool to start looking for. Our co-producers in the Philippines have worked with Chai before, and they suggested her, as did Ara.
We probably saw 15-20 people for the role on Zoom because it was all COVID-related. She [Chai] was just awesome. I think she just found that balance between being very friendly and slightly submissive. Also, being able to be quite dominant and threatening too.
She did this amazing thing in the audition where she would disarm you with a smile. She was saying something that could be considered a little weird, but then she was giving a nice, big, warm smile. You don’t really know how to take it. That’s where we started developing this character.
She has both sides in her. As the flashbacks begin to build, it almost becomes his hit. It’s as if she changed roles with Christine. Was it a conscious decision you made in the writing process?
Yeah, that was the real challenge, and that’s what we decided to do in the movie, to do a placebo and nocebo with the story. So, like changing allegiance midway through the story. What you think is good could be bad or what is bad could be good. That was the intention.
There are so many close-ups and visceral imagery, I think of dog and fire. They are both terrifying and beautiful in a strange way. Why did you decide to take these close-up images?
Yeah. I mean. I kind of developed the project over a long period of time, so it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when we were like, “Oh yeah, use lots of close-ups.” Me and the DP, Radek [Ladczuk], we are talking about various films. by Bergmann Character was actually an influence in terms of close-ups.
We shot in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which is a little tighter because we knew we had two characters that were going to be pretty close together. We wanted to bring them closer, which involved a lot of two-shot portraits as well as close-ups. You get closer to the characters and feel like you might know them from close-ups, but are subverted as the film progresses.
You feel a sense of claustrophobia.
Yeah. In addition, I also like portraiture in photography. Sometimes a good close-up can really give a different view of the person rather than just a broad view of them. You can really see their face and you can see the nuances in their expression.
Nocebo is now in theaters. It will be on demand and digital on November 22. The film will stream on Shudder at a later date.