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TORONTO 2018 Special Presentations

Review: Mothers’ Instinct

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- TORONTO 2018: Calling on the services of Veerle Baetens and Anne Coesens, Belgium’s Olivier Masset-Depasse delivers an atmospheric, female-driven, nostalgic psychological thriller set in the 1960s

Review: Mothers’ Instinct
Anne Coesens and Veerle Baetens in Mothers’ Instinct

Belgian director-scriptwriter Olivier Masset-Depasse debuted at Toronto in 2006 with Cages [+see also:
trailer
film profile
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; later, his sophomore psychological thriller, Illegal [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Olivier Masset-Depasse
film profile
]
 (2010), was selected for the 42nd Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Mothers' Instinct is Masset-Depasse’s third feature, which has had its world premiere as a Special Presentation at the 43rd Toronto International Film Festival.

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Two best friends, Alice (Veerle Baetens) and Céline (Anne Coesens), have a special relationship. They live with their families in early-1960s suburban Brussels, in two identical, adjoining, middle-class houses. Their bond has been passed on to their eight-year-old sons, Théo and Maxime, who grew up together and are like brothers. Their husbands, Simon (Mehdi Nebbou) and Damien (Arieh Worthalter), also share a similar proximity, and the two families practically live as one. But one day, tragedy strikes when Maxime dies in an accident that Alice witnesses but which she is unable to prevent. Céline accuses Alice of failing to save her son, and her attitude completely changes. Their once-perfect relationship starts to fall apart, while Alice is afraid that her friend will start seeking revenge.

Masset-Depasse knows how to create films based on strong, dedicated female characters, and Mothers' Instinct is an intensely atmospheric and vividly nostalgic feminist psychological thriller. Loosely inspired by the Machiavellian contemporary crime novel Behind the Hatred by successful Belgian writer Barbara Abel, the director, along with Giordano Gederlini, adapted and set the story in the 1960s, offering a rather retro but, at the same time, intriguingly dark feel, despite the sun-drenched surroundings. This serves as a fitting backdrop for this thriller of contradictions, a game of mirrors between two worlds that initially seem identical, before falling apart.

Starting off with the lead actresses, Baetens (The Broken Circle Breakdown [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Felix van Groeningen
interview: Felix Van Groeningen
interview: Felix Van Groeningen
festival scope
film profile
]
) portrays a typical “blonde” character, in the classic Hollywood tradition, intelligent and a bearer of all that is good and innocent, while the fear in the film stems from the strong, manipulative but captivating “brunette” played by Coesens (awarded for her performance in Illegal). Besides the script, Masset-Depasse also imbues the aesthetics of the film with a plethora of elaborate details. By enclosing everything within the adjoining houses – claustrophobic, parallel but still isolated spaces – he ramps up the tension and allows the two female protagonists to battle it out. Every step they take alters the delicate balance of their silent war.

As widely expected, narratively, Mothers' Instinct follows a fairly classical and linear type of storytelling, which favours both the development of the suspense and that of the characters. Undoubtedly, there are clear Hitchcockian influences, both in the story and the camerawork, but the influence of Claude Chabrol is also quite noticeable. Visually, the homage to the pastel Technicolor palette in Hichame Alaouie’s cinematography adds some of Douglas Sirk’s heavy brushstrokes, and the finishing touch comes from Frédéric Vercheval’s orchestral work, clearly following in the footsteps of the 1960s chillers.

Mothers’ Instinct could be accused of not bringing anything revolutionary to the table, as it harks back to classic, straightforward flicks, but this is a tour de force of the genre. It remains faithful to an old-school, audience-driven form of entertainment and succeeds in keeping the viewer gripped, adding in a dash of nostalgia.

Mothers’ Instinct is a Belgian-French co-production by Jacques-Henri Bronckart (Versus Production), with Carole ScottaSimon ArnalBarbara Letellier (Haut et Court), Bart Van Langendonck (Savage Film), VOO, Be TV and RTBF, and with the participation of Canal+ and Ciné+. The international sales are handled by Indie Sales.

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