Mothers’ Instinct (2024, dir. Benoît Delhomme)

by | Mar 28, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 94 mins

UK Distributor: Studiocanal

UK Release Date: 27 March 2024

WHO’S IN MOTHERS’ INSTINCT?

Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Josh Charles, Anders Danielsen Lie, Caroline Lagerfelt, Baylen D. Bielitz, Eamon Patrick O’Connell

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Benoît Delhomme (director, cinematographer), Sarah Conradt-Kroehler (writer), Jacques-Henri Bronckart, Kelly Carmichael, Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway and Paul Nelson (producers), Anne Nikitin (composer), Juliette Welfling (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In 60s suburbia, a pair of mothers (Chastain and Hathaway) find their friendship pushed to the brink…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON MOTHERS’ INSTINCT?

While I wasn’t as taken with last year’s May December as many other people were, it certainly struck a chord with a lot of viewers, who admired the subtler shades of camp that seemed to parody the melodramatic nature of certain thrillers on the Lifetime channel. By contrast, Mothers’ Instinct – the directorial debut of cinematographer Benoît Delhomme – isn’t as gentle with its own homage to that type of film, nor is it as knowingly trashy, in an odd mixture of tones and ideas that ultimately left me with a slightly bad taste in the mouth.

A remake of the 2018 Belgian film of the same name, which itself was adapted from Barbara Abel’s novel, Delhomme’s take on Mothers’ Instinct relocates the drama to a suburban neighbourhood in early 60s America, where neighbours and best friends Alice (Jessica Chastain) and Celine (Anne Hathaway) are typical housewives with nothing but love for their respective partners Simon (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Damien (Josh Charles), and especially their young sons Theo (Eamon Patrick O’Connell) and Max (Baylen D. Bielitz).

After Max succumbs to a tragic accident, leaving both his parents completely devastated, Celine begins to form a strong attachment to Theo, which an overprotective Alice begins to feel great discomfort about, leading to their friendship slowly turning less and less friendly as grief and paranoia cloud their better senses.

Having neither seen the original film nor read the book that both movies are based on, I can only comment on how Delhomme approaches his version, which despite clearly aiming for a style similar to your typical Lifetime psychological thriller, right down to a foreboding dramatic musical score that accompanies even the happiest of scenes, strangely prevents itself from reaching that target. While the script, by Sarah Conradt-Kroehler, certainly touches upon plenty of ideas that are intriguing, and on occasion even disturbing, the first-time filmmaker brings too much restraint to his direction, which ends up diluting the tension and even confining some of the actors’ performances to surface-level emotions.

It’s a shame, because Chastain and especially Hathaway are putting in some strong turns here (and as producers on the film, both actors are certainly engaged with the material beyond their means as performers), but their director rarely allows them enough room to fully flesh out their characters, to where some of their more volatile decisions later on seem to come out of nowhere without much build-up.

Delhomme’s reserved directorial style, which does not seem to recognise the campier themes that are implied in Conradt-Kroehler’s script, turns Mothers’ Instinct into a blandly misguided experiment to extract the flamboyance from an otherwise disposable thriller, thereby robbing it of its entertainment value. There is little dramatic engagement with the central plot, since it is often buoyed with repetitive scenes of characters dealing with their grief, fretting over their children’s safety etc that often do little to further the actual narrative.

Meanwhile, the turns that certain characters end up making feel all too sudden, as again there’s not enough time spent with them to fully understand why they would come to make such radical choices, making it seem like this person is doing all these things just because the plot says so. A more knowing and self-aware filmmaker might have chosen to play up the over-the-top nature, in a similar fashion to how Todd Haynes ultimately approached May December, but Delhomme takes it all too seriously, grounding a story that doesn’t seem like it should be completely grounded, and makes it all feel less fun to watch than it should be.

Then, there is the manner in which the film concludes. Obviously, there will be no spoilers in this review, but suffice to say that the ending to Mothers’ Instinct is certain to be the most talked-about moment of the entire film, not to mention the most divisive. On the one hand, it takes some incredibly bold decisions that do not entirely play into convention, and the implications behind it are no less than horrifying, so there is plenty of credit to be given toward this film for sticking with its guns and refusing to play it safe.

However, the direction is once again oblivious as to how dark and depraved this ending is, and in treating it more like an emotional drama rather than the chilling thriller it’s meant to be, to where the perpetrator is almost seen as the hero in this situation, it feels all sorts of wrong, especially as the final note to send its audience out on. It’s a similar problem I had with Saltburn, which similarly treated an outwardly villainous set of actions as something the film wants its audience to feel good about, even though the only person who would come away from it with a warm feeling inside is a deranged psychopath, and Mothers’ Instinct left me in a deeply uncomfortable state that left me shocked, but not in the way that was intended.

Had it recognised the fact that it’s more of a trashy Lifetime thriller than the sophisticated melodrama it thinks itself as, Mothers’ Instinct could have been campy, overblown fun. Instead, it is too self-serious to even have fun with itself, rendering it a bland mess.

Maybe May December was onto something after all.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Mothers’ Instinct is a blandly restrained psychological thriller that sees first-time director Benoît Delhomme extract the campier nature of an otherwise trashy script, thereby robbing it of any entertainment value.

Two out of five stars

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