The Movie Waffler New to VOD - MOTHERS’ INSTINCT | The Movie Waffler


Two neighbours' friendship is shattered by a tragedy involving one of their kids.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Benoît Delhomme

Starring: Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Anders Danielsen Lie, Josh Charles

Mothers' Instinct poster

Revisiting the best mainstream American film made in the late 1970s (Grease) for the 3000th time the other night (every time I watch it I catch something new; like the infinite comedy detail of a Sergio Aragones' comic strip there is so much going on in each frame), I was thinking about how the film presents its version of 1950s America. You have to laugh: when I was little and loved Grease I didn't really clock its period setting. It was a film released before I was born, and as a child I just assumed it depicted America's recent past (I was a happy minded boy). Of course, as adults we recognise and celebrate the constructed artificiality; the shiny façade of chrome and pink, of hyperbolic gender roles, the totemic fashion; a glossed carapace within which nestled a desperate nostalgia and poignant rumination upon the serious social dynamics of late adolescence. "What was banal can, with the passage of time, become fantastic," asserts Sontag in 'Notes on Camp', and fantastic Grease most defiantly is. With its middle-aged actors playing kids, bravura drops into song, and wholesome implication that everyone is in on the joke the audience are gleefully positioned to observe the world "as an aesthetic phenomenon."

Watching noir-ish melodrama Mothers' Instinct, veteran cinematographer Benoît Delhomme's directorial debut, you experience that same dizzying sense of remove, of simulacra and slipping across exquisitely shaped yet hollow surfaces. A remake of 2018's Belgian movie, which was in itself an adaptation of Barbara Abel's 2012 novel, Delhomme's film comes already pre-equipped with prior associations, further impersonating what has been previously established. I've not seen Olivier Masset-Depasse's predecessor, but the trailer suggests Delhomme took a shot for shot approach which would have Gus Van Sant sagely nodding. Even before Mothers' Instinct's diegesis offers its candid iconography of looking glasses, windows and polished exteriors, a mimetic nature and theme of counterparts is inherent.

Mothers' Instinct review

The concept is advanced within the narrative, which efficiently establishes Anne Hathaway (Céline) and Jessica Chastain (Alice) - what is the first word of that title again, etc - as neighbours, living in a parallel proximity within an idealised suburban America of the 1960s. The cast names are prioritised because Mothers' Instinct is predicated on performance, with reference to the dependably superb work of these excellent actors yet also the synergous plot. This is a world where appearance - the keeping up of it with flawless dress, immaculate housekeeping, and kitchen goddessry - is imperative to being a successful woman (the only thing in the film more attractive than our Jess is Céline's set of Nick and Nora cocktail glasses, which I immediately coveted). The ultimate actualisation of this predisposed archetype is, of course, being a mother, and, in keeping with the film's characteristic duality, both Céline and Alice have sons of around eight. Early on we learn that Céline, following a birthday, a date which after the age of 25 becomes less a celebratory occasion and more a reminder of nature's mowing scythe, cannot have more children. At least she has Max, though. Shame if anything happened to him...

And, of course, it does (this may be a spoiler-?- as the marketing seems to exclusively, and understandably, play on the appeal of its iconic stars, rather than story), as the poor kid falls to death while attempting to fix a bird box to his balcony. Alice is unfortunately witness to the accident, and, via a queasy displacement of guilt and fury, Céline holds her culpable.

Mothers' Instinct review

I'm not sure if I quite subscribe to the old Laurie Colwin aphorism that "friendship is not possible between two women one of whom is very well dressed," but Mothers' Instinct certainly seems to. The death of Max serves as a catalyst of what was already existent between Alice and Céline: an accepted, tightly calibrated competition masquerading as friendship. Thus, we progress into a Spy Vs. Spy (a correlation exemplified by the binary monochrome of the characters' hair colour) psychological dance of two steps forward, one step back reveals, as the two contend within a hysteria-tinged mise-en-scene of twitched curtains, desperately smoked cigarettes and purloined pharmaceuticals.

In the press screening, the film it most reminded us of was Don't Worry Darling, Olivia Wilde's underrated misfire (reassessment due in around three years' time), wherein the artificiality of its period setting was a pictorial aspect of that film's nightmare of aspiration and identity. The vivid ambience is recreated here, a lux pastel world of abundance, domestic glamour and plastic smiles, familiar from mid-century American mass market advertising campaigns. These commercials marketed a lifestyle which Mothers' Instinct displays wholesale, yet it is a hyperreality which we recognise now as confected, presenting a mythological America which never actually existed.

Mothers' Instinct review

Screenwriter Sarah Conradt-Kroehler's relocation of Abel's novel to America consolidates the uncanny remove, as does Ernesto Solo's absolutely gorgeous art design. Along with the aforementioned glassware, you will too swoon at Mitchell Travers' costumes: my top three of Jess's are the bright yellow summer dress she witnesses the accident in, the thickly vertical pink striped bodycon in which she hosts her son's birthday party, and a completely outrageous off the shoulder quilted tattersall cardigan she just so casually swans about in as it all hits the fan later on (and, yes god help me, her funeral get up is fucking boots, too). Jess is, as ever, resplendent, with lots of expressive close ups and extended sequences which showcase her imperial beauty. Chastain is uniquely suited to the woozy deracination of Mothers' Instinct because her angled elegance is so otherworldly, almost parodic in its divaricating glory. Talk about aesthetic phenomena, etc.

The problem with Mothers' Instinct is that while all of these (surely deliberate) camp signifiers are going on and the performances extend to glorious histrionics, due to its upsetting plot trigger the film can never fully relax into the mode. After all, the plot is predicated upon the worst thing you can ever imagine happening, with the continuing film essaying the awful and insurmountable ramifications of a mother's grief (perhaps the novel, regarding its early '60s setting and sinister liaisons, was shaped by a Patricia Highsmith influence, encompassing the author's black humour?). There is no fun in Mothers' Instinct's proposal otherwise, despite the lustre: it's as if when Mrs Kitner confronts Martin Brody, Spielberg is nudging us to notice how fabulous she looks. The position of women is paid lip service when Alice wonders "Is it enough for you, this life?," more to herself than Céline, and the film does pointedly name check the bluff optimism of Kennedy's presidency, but these ideas disappear quicker than a work-all-day husband's pre-dinner Old Fashioned. Thus, Mothers' Instinct suffers from an odd stasis, the affected sensibility subsuming true feeling while its grim implications rob us of arch pleasure; to return to Sontag, it is ultimately a failed seriousness.

Mothers' Instinct is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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