Monday 19 July 2021

Mothers' Instinct (Olivier Masset-Depasse, 2018)

Mothers' Instinct gives Belgian actress Veerle Baetens a great opportunity to flex her acting muscles; the Brasschaat native has previously impressed with strong turns in the likes of Robin Pront's The Ardennes and Felix van Groeningen's The Broken Circle Breakdown, with her performance in the latter receiving wide acclaim while netting several Best Actress awards from film festivals around the world.  These three films provide evidence of Baetens' considerable range as a performer, and the most recent of these titles, the 1960s-set Mothers' Instinct, is a sly, clever work, one in which the actress appears to be having a great deal of fun as she plays a character who keeps us guessing all along; there's a great game going on between Baetens and her co-star Anne Coesens, as both play equally inscrutable characters in this mischievous, simmering thriller. 

Baetens' Alice and Coesens' Celine live next door to one another and are on very good terms, yet even this close friendship is eclipsed by that of their two little boys, who spend a great deal of time together; the film isn't that old before Celine's son falls to his death from an upstairs window, and it is from this tragedy that the film's setup clicks into place: Alice feels that Celine is tacitly blaming her for what happened.  While Alice was the sole witness to the accident but didn't have enough time to alter the terrible course of events, she was in no way responsible for the child's death; but whether it's a form of survivor's guilt or something else, Alice is uneasy around Celine, and even suspects that the bereaved mother is consumed by a jealousy that will drive her to take revenge on those on the other side of the wall.  But is any of this real, or simply a state of mind on the part of Alice?  Celine certainly seems very fond of Alice's son, but the boy's jittery mother just can't take this kindness at face value. 

Based on a novel by Belgian author Barbara Abel, Mothers' Instinct is a taut, imaginative work, one which comes to the boil nicely as all the passive-aggressiveness eventually gives way to something more overtly hostile.  While many have likened the film to the work of Alfred Hitchcock, it actually feels more closely related to Claude Chabrol's thrillers of the 60s—although, given that Chabrol was known as the "French Hitchcock", perhaps it doesn't really matter which, if either, of these masters you choose to reference.  The decision to set the film in the 1960s means that we're treated to an immaculate recreation of the decade's styles and fashions, all wrapped up in a sumptuous colour palette; you strongly suspect that Mothers' Instinct wouldn't be quite as much fun without these sets and costumes, given that the production design is as big a star as either of the excellent leading ladies.

While Veerle Baetens' performance may be the more eye-catching, Anne Coesens matches her co-star every step of the way, and there's a lot of nuance in her portrayal of the grief-stricken Celine.  The classy all-Belgian affair that is Mothers' Instinct seems a rather unlikely work from Olivier Masset-Depasse, a filmmaker previously best known for 2010's Dardennes-esque Illegal, but it's always nice to see a bit of versatility behind the camera as well as from stars like Coesens and Baetens; Masset-Depasse is actually married to the former, who has been an ever-present in her husband's theatrical features, which date back to 2006's Cages.  While he hasn't made too many films, Mother's Instinct proves that Masset-Depasse continues to grow as a filmmaker, and it will be worth keeping an eye on his next career move.    

Darren Arnold

Images: Haut et Court