Saturday, April 20, 2024

“MOTHER’S INSTINCT”

THE STORY – Housewives Alice and Celine are best friends and neighbors who seem to have it all. However, when a tragic accident shatters the harmony of their lives, guilt, suspicion, and paranoia begin to unravel their sisterly bond.

THE CAST – Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Josh Charles & Anders Danielsen Lie

THE TEAM – Benoît Delhomme (Director), Barbara Abel & Sarah Conradt (Writers)

THE RUNNING TIME – 94 Minutes


In “Mothers’ Instinct,” acclaimed French cinematographer Benoît Delhomme makes his feature directorial debut and is able to build a suspenseful thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat. The film explores themes of motherhood and being a woman in the 1960s with exquisite style and gripping performances from its two leading ladies. It sometimes borders on clichéd or the slightly ridiculous, but Delhomme proves his directorial chops as a pair of steady hands that guides this mystery to an exhilarating climax. From its opening, the film tests the stress levels of its audience, preparing them for an intense 94-minute romp about betrayal, paranoia, and revenge.

The film opens with prolonged wordless shots of Alice, played by Jessica Chastain, creeping through the house of her neighbor and best friend, Céline (Anne Hathaway). Much of the first act is a simple slice of life, as Delhomme focuses on the closeness of these women and their families. Their friendship is one of mutual understanding and exemplifies the pressures and privileges of middle-class white women in America during the 1960s. From the outset, there is an expectation that their seemingly perfect lives will soon be disrupted. The early dialogue can feel a bit hokey, but this is an intentional romanticization of the time period, with brief allusions to the space race and President John F. Kennedy to contextualize the film. Like many stories about a friendship breaking up, “Mothers’ Instinct” introduces its protagonists in a stereotypically perfect female companionship. Hathaway’s Céline is carefree, the polar opposite of Chastain’s Alice, whose dissatisfaction with being a stay-at-home mother has planted her in a crisis of identity. After a horrifying sequence that leads to the death of Celine’s son, the two are forced to confront the truth of their fractured friendship and Alice’s role in the death of her best friend’s child.

Initially, Olivier Massett-Depasse was set to direct the English language remake of his 2018 film of the same name. However, after he had to drop out, cinematographer Benoît Delhomme took the project. His filmmaking style is dynamic, with unpolished handheld shots contrasting the flawless visuals created by the crafts departments. This neatly reflects the mental states of the two women as they descend into a frantic series of toxic acts. The cinematography can be a bit indulgent, featuring a few too many images of women peering from behind curtains. Still, the shots are well-blocked and visually elevate the film, which you would expect from a cinematographer directing and lensing their own film.

The film’s real stars, however, are the costumes and makeup design. It’s hard not to get distracted by how pristine everything looks. Frequent close-ups linger on the perfectly made-up faces of Chastain and Hathaway, their flawlessly curated outfits never creased and their fingernails always freshly manicured. The costumes are wisely used to illustrate the characters’ psychology; in early scenes, the two leads are dressed in bright, pastel colors, bringing a sense of ease to their picturesque lives. After the death of Max, Céline is dressed primarily in black, including one particularly incredible-looking moment wearing a black veil. The appearance of the characters expresses the constraints of women at the time who were expected to look perfect, regardless of the chaos and devastation in their lives. This is also true of the production design of the two homes where most of the story occurs. The houses are beautifully designed, standing territorially next to one another and concealing terrible secrets within, just like their inhabitants.

Predictably, “Mothers’ Instinct” doesn’t handle the concept of grief or mental illness with a lot of tact, but for a film more interested in beautiful housewives engaging in wildly unhinged behavior, it manages to combine the two without being entirely offensive. Delhomme tries to balance the melodrama with sincerity, which is not always successful but makes for an entertaining watch nonetheless. The severity of accusation and violence in the film sometimes feels far-fetched. Still, Delhomme plays into it, creating a blend of tragedy, comedy, and horror, crafting an engrossing narrative until the very last moment.

Barbara Abel and Sarah Conradt’s script feels like it is toying with the characters, testing their limits, and pushing them towards it. Hathaway and Chastain are having a lot of fun in their respective roles, each portraying the desperation that is often definitive in stereotypes of “hysterical” women. The film plays into tropes of psychological thrillers – shadowy corners, muddled pills, and a scary basement – but only dares to dip its toe rather than diving in head first. It would be fun to see what kind of performances Hathaway and Chastain could’ve created if the script pushed them a little bit more, but their work makes the film a worthwhile watch.

Despite its shortcomings, the final 30-minute stretch of the film is undoubtedly one of the more stressful cinematic experiences in recent memory, with the ability to garner screams and gasps from the audience as the story spirals out of control and becomes more unbelievable. The climax is one of remarkable intensity and somehow manages to be simultaneously predictable and absolutely audacious. You think you know what’s coming but can’t quite believe the filmmakers are actually willing to go there. While this approach will put some off, it will likely work for others hoping for something more dangerous and deranged.

“Mothers’ Instinct” is unquestionably enjoyable, but it also tries to be too many things simultaneously, sometimes leaving it caught in the gray area between thrilling and absurd. Delhomme spends a lot of time effectively building suspense but takes too long to get to the payoff. The film’s style and crafts are all captivating, and the performances from Hathaway and Chastain are worth the price of admission for entertainment value alone, but one cannot help but feel there was more potential to be squeezed out of this material.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - The quality of the crafts is incredible. Hathaway and Chastain are bringing their best.

THE BAD - Lacks focus and takes too much time to build suspense.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Costume Design

THE FINAL SCORE - 6/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>The quality of the crafts is incredible. Hathaway and Chastain are bringing their best.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>Lacks focus and takes too much time to build suspense.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-costume-design/">Best Costume Design</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>6/10<br><br>"MOTHER'S INSTINCT"