Mother's Instinct


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Mother's Instinct
"Chastain and Hathaway have tremendous chemistry, screen presence."

A tight and taut tale of trauma, Mothers' Instinct is so defined by two performances by stars Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain that one wonders if it might have been better staged as a play. Effectively a remake of the Belgian film Duelles that title was a play on its central relationship. 'deux elles', two "she", in repeated opposition, duels. That last a polyglot interpretation, operating in both French and German.

Oliver Masset-Depasse' 2018 adaptation won several awards. It was Belgium's entry for that year's Academy Awards, but that was in an incredibly strong year featuring films in that category by Susanne Bier, Alejandro Inarritu, Yorgos Lanthimos and Denis Villeneuve. The other director in that category, Rachid Bouchareb is the only one nominated that year who hasn't gone on to higher profile English language work. Hollywood is never one to shy away from attempting to replicate success. The source novel, Barbara Abel's Derrière La Haine, was only translated to English in 2023 (and then as a tie-in) but when first published in French in 2012 was Abel's 14th thriller.

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Authorial success doesn't always produce cinematic gold. James Patterson's Alex Cross has been played by Morgan Freeman and Tyler Perry but three films from 32 books is a rate of return 16 times worse than The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings. There can be advantage in successive iterations of a work, but there's a distinction between how material is taken through the process. Slavish replication can, like photocopying, make noise from detail. Successive processes can distil the essential spirit from wet chaff.

I'm a little split as to which Mothers' Instinct falls under. Chastain and Hathaway have tremendous chemistry, screen presence. A début feature for Sarah Conradt-Kroehler it is similarly so for director Benoid Delhomme. He's best known as a cinematographer, and noirish genre-takes like A Most Wanted Man or The Proposition are perhaps indicative. However there are moments where the subtleties of suspense are replaced with a very specific tilt of the head.

The rest of the cast (not large) all work well, but I found myself picturing a stage version as a two-hander. It's not that the men, be they husbands, children, partners, pathologists are interchangeable, but they are often literally not the focus. It may be that the earnest focus on a particular flavour of Americana, before the Kennedy election but with jets audible in clear blue skies reminded me of the deliberate constructedness and didactic falsity of Asteroid City. I'm often trapped by my desires for these things, I still wish that when Cliff Booth drove to his trailer by the drive-in in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood the camera had panned up to Tarantino leering over the model built as backdrop.

There are levels of perfection. White bread triangles hold egg salad in a geometric projection of pale conformity. Mothers' little helpers abound, though how and where they work and who they work for is a mystery that doesn't quite last long enough. The tension that it builds and sustains isn't so much squandered as allowed to run away. While the audience is left knowing some things the answers we're given aren't satisfying and nor are the questions left.

In places Anna Nikitin's score seems heavy handed, but in the thriller genre mothers and stabs (string or otherwise) often go hand in hand. Delhomme's camera is often incredibly close to his actors. Since I could find no relevant credit I think he's directing directly, and even with talent like Hathaway and Chastain it's still a feat to capture some of the smaller moments of their performances. Hair and jaws are set with equal firmness, and in a pair of locations, neighbouring houses, whose details ground a story that could and does tend to the melodramatic. For all their accuracy, however, they could be as minimal as the painted streets of Dogville. A white picket fence is just another kind of boundary. A hedge is just a collection of holes.

Oppenheimer's continuing uncertainties were of both psychology and quantuum physics. When Mothers' Instinct collapses become a matter of certainty what had until then made it special departs without so much as a wave.

Reviewed on: 28 Mar 2024
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Mother's Instinct packshot
Alice and Celine live a traditional lifestyle with successful husbands and sons of the same age. Life's perfect harmony is suddenly shattered after a tragic accident. Guilt, suspicion and paranoia combine to unravel their sisterly bond.

Director: Benoît Delhomme

Writer: Barbara Abel, Sarah Conradt

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Josh Charles, Caroline Lagerfelt, Anders Danielsen Lie, Lauren Yaffe, TL Flint

Year: 2024

Runtime: 94 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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