Tuesday 8 October 2019

Instinct (Halina Reijn, 2019)

Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari enjoyed a huge international breakthrough just a few months ago, starring as Jafar in the live-action version of Aladdin.  His role in Instinct - which opened in the Netherlands last week and plays at the London Film Festival on Saturday - is markedly different to the one he played in that Disney blockbuster; while still very much the villain of the piece, his character in Halina Reijn's directorial debut is far removed from the pantomime shenanigans of the Grand Vizier.  In Instinct, Kenzari conveys a very real menace which underlines his abilities as a serious dramatic actor.  Unfortunately, he and his co-star Carice van Houten are let down by a faltering script and rather uncertain direction, and Instinct never lands the knockout blow which, judging by its arresting early stages, it seems certain to deliver.

Van Houten's Nicoline is a psychologist who moves from job to job and doesn't appear to have much interest in staying in the one place for too long; her latest gig involves working in a prison for those convicted of serious offences.  Nicoline is experienced and assured, and few things seem to faze her, but this soon changes when she's charged with evaluating Idris (Kenzari), a man with multiple convictions - all of which pertain to violence against women.  Idris, who is on the verge of some unaccompanied parole, is clearly a very dangerous man but seems to be a fairly compliant inmate, and can often be quite charming - which is, presumably, how he snared many of those who went on to become his victims.  Idris' act - if it is an act - seems to persuade Nicoline's colleagues that he has been rehabilitated, but his assigned psychologist has real doubts.

While Nicoline appears to have the measure of Idris - you get the impression she's seen similar men countless times - there's something about this particular prisoner which gnaws away at her in a way she can't rationalise, and it's not long before her icy professionalism goes out of the window.  What follows is an increasingly preposterous game between Idris and Nicoline, one which sees the psychologist unravel as the prisoner toys with the mind of a woman who could well determine which side of the prison wall he ends up on.  Who's kidding who?  More pertinently, who cares?  In pitching the charismatic Idris against the aloof Nicoline, Reijn has created a strange level playing field, of sorts: Idris, unlike Nicoline, often seems to be doing things by the book, but does this current state of affairs mean we should blot out his terrible crimes?  After all, Nicoline's transgressions appear to be limited to this anomalous instance of unprofessionalism.  

Instinct's promisingly pulpy setup is the sort of thing which might just have worked in the mischievous hands of, say, François Ozon or Paul Verhoeven (side-note: Van Houten and Reijn both starred in Verhoeven's Zwartboek); the material really needs cranking up to a level where it would become enjoyably absurd (cf. Elle, L'amant double).  But Halina Reijn - who we're far more used to as a presence in front of the camera - seems to consciously pull back from such an approach, rendering Instinct an ostensibly trashy yarn that's had its guilty pleasures excised; it's a film caught between two stools.  It isn't a terrible movie - but it is a very frustrating one; while the two leads are very good, they're chained to a script which misses many opportunities to open up into something much more satisfying.  While Reijn hasn't made a bad job of her first feature film, she has opted to play it far too safe; given the subject matter, it seems most ironic that Instinct comes across as a film in which very few risks have been taken.

Darren Arnold

Images: Topkapi Films