Mother’s Instinct (Duelles)

The original French language title of MOTHER’S INSTINCT gives a more on-the-nose hint for the film that is to follow – a duel between female leads for audience empathy. As a film it twists and turns, and it undoubtedly builds and releases tension well on multiple occasions. Although perhaps a little too based in homage to be a memorable festival circuit breakout, it can certainly be appreciated for the gripping yarn that it is.

Alice (Veerle Baetens) is a Belgian housewife, living in suburban bliss with her son Theo (Jules Lefebvres) and husband Simon (Mehdi Nebbou). Living next door is Alice’s best friend Celine (Anne Coesens): mother to Theo’s playmate Maxime (Luan Adam); husband to Damien (Arieh Worthalter). We are introduced to them all in a playful nod to the film to come. Alice seemingly breaks into Celine’s home – almost a mirror version adjoined to her own, in a neat piece of cinematic symmetry – but rather than being for malicious purposes, director Olivier Masset-Depasse fakes us out for Celine’s surprise birthday party. Tragedy strikes shortly after, however, with Maxime falling from an upper floor window. Celine initially blames Alice – who witnessed the event unfold – for not doing more. Although they seemingly reconcile, Alice’s paranoia begins to increase at an alarming rate, as she suspects Celine continues to harbour ill feeling.

I was going to challenge myself to write about this film without using that most overused phrase in film criticism: ‘Hitchcockian’. It is, however, impossible to talk about MOTHER’S INSTINCT without addressing the way the film is so clearly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock’s work. Squint your eyes and Veerle Baetens could be Tippi Hedren. There is the same desire to have a current of rising dread, screeching string score, rising panic amidst declining mental clarity, underscored by an ambiguity as to extent of the malice perceived by our protagonist.

There is some inventiveness beyond the Hitchcock homages and influence, though. The two houses are contrasted against one another effectively. The grieving Geniot family’s home plunged in darkness, against the lamp-lit home of the Brunelle’s. This shot is called back to a couple of times, but with less light on Alice’s home as her grip on her emotions starts to loosen. The production and period sensibility is immaculately realised with bold colours and precise set design.

MOTHER’S INSTINCT has a sharp sense of purpose, and Olivier Masset-Depasse shows plenty of skill in keeping us on the edge of our seats. It shows too much reverence for films of the past to endure on its own, but while it is here your own instinct will be to remain glued to the screen.