'Instinct': Film Review | Locarno 2019

Locarno Film Festival
Definitely not basic.

Carice van Houten ('Game of Thrones') and Marwan Kenzari (Jafar from the live-action 'Aladdin') headline actress-turned-director Halina Reijn's Dutch-language feature debut.

The elevator pitch for the Dutch drama Instinct is succinct: When Jafar Met Melisandre...  

No, it's not exactly a Netherlands-set remake of that famous Ephron-Reiner joint, but with actors as fearless as Marwan Kenzari (Jafar from the recent Aladdin remake) and Carice van Houten (Game of Thrones) as the leads, the danger quotient moves up a few notches. (You might not want to have what they are having, so to speak.)

They play, respectively, a violent serial rapist about to qualify for partial, unaccompanied parole and his new prison therapist, who becomes intrigued by the charismatic inmate who seems capable of manipulating people into seeing in him what they want to see. But while she’s seeing through him — or perhaps because of it? — she also falls under his spell. Can a convicted sex offender and his female therapist keep things…professional? 

This is the first feature as writer-director for Dutch theater and film actress Halina Reijn (Valkyrie). It’s an ambitious and auspicious debut, even though not all of its frayed edges seem to be intentional. What is perhaps most noteworthy is what Instinct is not. Just imagine what someone like Paul Verhoeven — who directed both van Houten and Reijn in the Dutch World War II thriller Black Book — would have done with the therapist-falls-for-imprisoned-rapist premise (Penal Facility, anyone?). But this is not an enjoyably lurid, titillating tale, but rather a more probing and sober take on the material, more interested in shades of gray and character motivation than turning this into Fifty Shades in Prison.

This not-so-basic Instinct premiered in Locarno on the Piazza Grande — though it’s not exactly a crowd-pleaser for the whole family — and will open the Netherlands Film Festival at the end of September before its local release on Oct. 3. It also will screen at the Toronto International Film Festival in the Contemporary World Cinema section.

When the film opens, dark-haired, icily blue-eyed and fine-boned Nicoline (van Houten), an experienced prison therapist with a squeaky-clean reputation, arrives at the new — for her — correctional facility where she’s been hired. She is charged with evaluating inmates who are nearing the end of their prison term and will, if they have been on their best behavior, initially be allowed to leave the institution unaccompanied for a few hours every few days so they can slowly get used to being back in society again. 

Idris (Kenzari), impressively bulked up and with a curly mohawk that radiates menace more than good taste, has been incarcerated for almost five years. When he first meets Nicoline, the aforementioned form of partial parole has already been approved for him, though not yet scheduled. However, the new therapist’s first impression of the man with multiple convictions for violent sexual assault isn’t great. She expresses this view in the institution’s staff meetings, where her opinion sharply deviates from what the others — who have monitored him for five years — seem to think. 

The duo’s encounters, in a perfectly nondescript penitentiary meeting room, play to the pic’s strengths, as van Houten and Kenzari manage to do a lot with very little in terms of action or dialogue. Idris might be playing a role, trying to give Nicoline what he thinks she wants, but so is she, trying to provoke him to see if her assumptions are true while always attempting to remain just within the boundaries of what is professionally permissible. This focus on characters acting within a real-life context is, of course, extremely attractive to play for actors as talented as van Houten and Kenzari, and it’s also something that must appeal to Reijn as an actress-turned-director. These scenes underline the absurdity of some aspects of prison life because there is, naturally, no independent way of verifying someone’s true feelings or intentions, which is one of Reijn's main thematic cornerstones. 

Generally speaking, and perhaps influenced by her intensive work, for many years, with Belgian theater legend and Broadway director Ivo van Hove, the rookie helmer coaxes impressively layered work from her performers. Kenzari especially seems to relish the opportunity to play a character whose ambiguity is the opposite of what normally happens. Here, his criminal past is an established fact and what is ambiguous is whether he’s really learned to better himself or he’s just pretending because he knows that will get him released sooner. Convincingly turning a convicted rapist into a heat-generating romantic lead isn’t an opportunity that arises every day for an actor, and Kenzari faces the challenge head-on. And in terms of sheer presence and her ability to play complex characters, van Houten is clearly Kenzari’s equal. 

But there are some elements in the screenplay, written by novelist-turned-screenwriter Esther Gerritsen (Nena) and Reijn, that make Nicoline’s shades of gray less clearly filled in than Idris’. The film is told from a point-of-view very close to Nicoline, which means that van Houten's character's psyche should be easier to penetrate for the viewer. But her private life, as a single woman who has a complex relationship with her single (or widowed?) mother (Betty Schuurman), for example, is given short shrift. While there’s definitely a sense that not everything in the past of Nicoline’s family — which includes her married sister (Maria Kraakman), also a mom — was rosy, the movie never explicitly names what might have happened. This makes Nicoline feel a little opaque in terms of her motivations because she might know more than the viewer does. The pic is also a little too fond of showing van Houten’s character staring ruefully out of windows, suggesting something — but what? — might be on her mind. 

Nicoline’s awkward flirtation with a colleague from Belgium (Pieter Embrechts) offers a few more clues about what kind of woman she is and how she deals with men and sex. But it also feels like a somewhat undercooked part of the narrative, with Reijn struggling to figure out how much of her protagonist’s behavior she wants or needs to explain and how much of it should be, well, instinctual. That said, this uncertainty, which will likely bother at least a part of more mainstream audiences, does tie in with the central notion of there being little certainty about people’s true feelings or intentions, even — or perhaps especially — in the minds of the people concerned themselves.

In their screenplay, Gerritsen and Reijn offer some elegant visual solutions for Idris and Nicoline’s increasingly feverish cat-and-mouse game. An encounter on a beach, for example, wordlessly plays with the notion of drawing a line in the sand. It also briefly flirts with the Verhoeven-esque when Idris relieves himself in front of the woman who was his therapist but who slowly seems to be morphing into something resembling his stalker. “What you want won’t happen,” he tells her, while he has two fingers stuck in her mouth. Is this a potential lover playing hard to get? A criminal playing mind games? A man simply being honest? A combination of the above? An extended later scene in Nicoline’s austerely decorated apartment similarly finds exactly the right tone between menace and desire and between lust, fear and shame. 

Ella van der Woude’s score helps to keep things restrained and classy, in keeping with Reijn’s general tone, which never becomes melodramatic or potboiler-crazy. Minke Lunter’s costumes are the one craft contribution that's perhaps a little too on-the-nose, with Caroline and Idris dressed in the same T-shirt and jeans during a key first encounter and the therapist dressed in a classy variation on typical policewoman colors during the film's denouement. 

Production companies: Topkapi Film, Man Up Films, BNNVARA
Cast: Carice van Houten, Marwan Kenzari, Betty Schuurman, Marie-Mae van Zuilen, Pieter Embrechts, Ariane Schluter, Maria Kraakman, Tamar van den Dop, Robert de Hoog, Juda Goslinga
Director: Halina Reijn
Screenwriters: Esther Gerritsen, Halina Reijn
Producers: Frans van Gestel, Laurette Schillings, Arnold Heslenfeld 
Director of photography: Jasper Wolf
Production designer: Lieke Scholman
Costume designer: Minke Lunter
Editing: Job ter Burg
Music: Ella van der Woude
Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)

Sales: Films Boutique

In Dutch
98 minutes