'Mothers' Instinct' ('Duelles'): Film Review | TIFF 2018

Courtesy of TIFF
A stylish, well-played retro thriller that doesn’t fully ignite.

Veerle Baetens and Anne Coesens headline the third feature from Belgian director Olivier Masset-Depasse ('Illegal'), which made its premiere in Toronto.

Part Hitchcock, part Douglas Sirk and part Catfight, the retro Belgian psychodrama Mothers’ Instinct (Duelles) follows two very desperate housewives duking it out to the death amid a backdrop of 1960s designer living rooms, petit-four dinner parties and impeccable bourgeois etiquette. It’s a fairly outlandish, campy premise that’s rather skillfully handled by director Olivier Masset-Depasse (Illegal) and stars Veerle Baetens (The Broken Circle Breakdown) and Anne Coesens (Eva), who play two of the most hostile neighbors to hit the screen since Michael Keaton moved into Pacific Heights or Jack Nicholson landed next door to Helen Hunt in As Good as It Gets.

Indeed, Masset-Depasse’s third feature lies somewhere between a nostalgic psychological thriller and, whether intentionally or not, a costumed dark comedy, although the film provides less laughs than it should and winds up taking its over-the-top scenario a tad too seriously; half the time, you don’t know if you should be rolling or shuddering in your seat, though you mostly do the latter. After premiering in Toronto, it could bring the fight to Euro art houses and international VOD platforms.

A tongue-in-cheek opening sets the tone: Alice (Baetens), who is essentially a Belgian Betsy Draper, is seen spying on her next-door neighbor, Celine (Coesens), then racing against the clock as composer Frederic Vercheval’s thumping score does its best to mimic the melodies of Bernard Herrmann and Miklos Rozsa. But what looks uncannily like the start of a murder sequence instead leads to a surprise birthday party, with Alice and Celine turning out to be besties with matching sons, Theo (Jules Lefebvres) and Maxime (Luan Adam), and matching hardworking husbands, Simon (Mehdi Nebbou) and Damien (Arieh Worthalter). Beyond the perfectly pruned hedges that divide their attached homes, the only thing seemingly separating the two is that Alice is a blond and Celine a brunette. (Try and guess which one of them turns out to be evil.)

Tragedy soon strikes when Celine’s dear Maxime accidentally falls out his bedroom window while a helpless Alice looks on, rushing up the stairs but failing to save him. Although it’s clearly not the latter’s fault, she feels extremely guilty about what happened, her guilt transforming into paranoia when she begins to suspect her (now former) best neighbor of trying to kill Theo. A lot of the plot hinges on whether Alice is imagining things or whether Celine, who plunges into a long funk following her son’s death, is secretly conspiring to exact a slow and steady revenge.

Masset-Depasse, who wrote the script with Giordano Gederlini and Francois Verjans, keeps viewers guessing for a reasonable amount of time: At one point, one begins to even wonder if Alice’s hysteria is not giving Celine a good reason to act. Eventually, though, someone whips out a bottle of chloroform and all hell breaks loose, which means Mothers’ Instinct more or less flies off the rails — the game of cat and mouse becomes one of life and death, while the (rather morbid) humor of some of the earlier scenes gives way to a violent neighborly slug-match that will only leave one woman standing.

Directed in an overtly slick style with nods to both the Master of Suspense (Suspicion, Notorious and Shadow of a Doubt all come to mind) and Sirkian classics like All That Heaven Allows, the film convincingly imitates the greats but never quite finds its own voice. Beyond being a well-made homage, what, exactly, is Mothers’ Instinct (whose better French-language title connotes both a duel and a dual, as in a double) supposed to be about? It’s ultimately hard to tell, although Masset-Depasse seems to be implying that repressive sexual mores of the early 1960s could drive women like Alice and Celine — whose husbands are always either away at work or drunk at home — mad.

Baetens, whose turn in The Broken Circle Breakdown earned her several accolades, is perfect here as a prim and proper homemaker filled with anxiety: From the very first time you see her, you feel like she’s already on the verge of mental collapse. Coesens, who toplined Masset-Depasse’s previous features, is more withdrawn, yet all the more creepy for it. Tech credits are highlighted by Hichame Alouie’s lush photography, production designer Anna Falgueres’ flawless throwbacks to the era and Thierry Delettre's costumes, which could have been easily worn by Tippi Hedren, Kim Novak or Grace Kelly.

Production companies: Versus Production, Haut et Court
Cast: Veerle Baetens, Anne Coesens, Mehdi Nebbou, Ariel Worthalter, Luan Adam, Jules Lefebvres
Director: Olivier Masset-Depasse
Screenwriters: Olivier Masset-Depasse, Giordano Gederlini, Francois Verjans
Producers: Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Olivier Bronckart, Carole Scotta, Barbara Letellier, Simon Arnal, Caroline Benjo, Bart Van Langendonck
Executive producer: Gwennaelle Libert
Director of photography: Hichame Alouie
Production designer: Anna Falgueres
Costume designer: Thierry Delettre
Editor: Damien Keyeux
Composer: Frederic Vercheval
Casting director: Michael Laguens
Venues: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
Sales: Indie Sales

In French
97 minutes