Masset-Depasse's 'Mothers' Instinct' is a throwback to a predominantly 1990s-era subgenre of psychological thriller. These films often pivoted on what used to be called a "[blank] from hell" scenario, as in "nanny from hell" ('The Hand that Rocks the Cradle') or "temp from hell" ('The Temp'), to name just a few. If one wishes to re-adopt this parlance, 'Mothers' Instinct' concerns "neighbours from hell"... but not in a fun 'The 'Burbs' way. These neighbours may or may not be turning a woman's fear of losing her infant child against her.
Two best friends, Alice (Veerle Baetens) and Céline (Anne Coesens), live with their families in early-1960s suburban Brussels, in a pair of identical, adjoining, middle-class houses. Their bond has been passed on to their eight-year-old sons, Théo and Maxime, who grew up together and are like brothers, and their husbands, Simon (Mehdi Nebbou) and Damien (Arieh Worthalter). But one day, Maxime is killed after falling from a window in an accident that Alice witnesses but is unable to prevent. After a period of depression, Céline accuses Alice of failing to save her son. Slowly, their once-perfect relationship starts to fall apart and, after small accidents begin occurring, Alice starts to suspect that her friend may be seeking revenge.
Loosely inspired by the crime novel 'Behind the Hatred' by Belgian writer Barbara Abel, the setting of the film has been changed to the 1960s, removing the protection of modern technology and policing technique. By enclosing everything within the adjoining houses - claustrophobic, parallel but still isolated spaces - the director ramps up the tension and allows the two female protagonists to battle it out. Every step they take alters the delicate balance of their silent war of contradictions, a game of mirrors between two worlds that initially seem identical, before falling apart (the French title of the film is 'Duelles').
Masset-Depasse establishes the hostilities existing within the film's quartet of characters with quiet confidence, as he exhibits one of the great and under-valued qualities of a thriller director: patience. The director allows the situation between Alice, Céline, Simon, and Demien to breathe, luxuriating in awkward silences, angry eruptions, and paranoid hiding and seeking, as they bubble up in the subtly stifling habitats of the two adjoining houses. Masset-Depasse cleverly exploits the obvious anxiety and unease of Alice, and the need for cocooning and privacy of the kind that is unavailable to her. The filmmaker understands that the possibility of chaos is scarier than chaos itself, as the latter provides the audience with a reassuring catharsis no matter how awful it may be.
Masset-Depasse establishes the hostilities existing within the film's quartet of characters with quiet confidence, as he exhibits one of the great and under-valued qualities of a thriller director: patience.
Narratively, 'Mothers' Instinct' follows a fairly classical type of Hitchcockian storytelling, which favours both the development of the suspense and that of the characters, and the film has something of Patrick Hamilton's drama 'Gaslight', as well as Hollywood domestic-menace movies like 'Fatal Attraction'. Ultimately, the film is at its best when it's not trying to ape and imitate other genre offerings, instead layering drama in alongside the chills.
Aided by strong, grounded performances by Veerle Baetens and Anne Coesens, 'Mothers' Instinct' is a nostalgic, old-school, intensely atmospheric feminist psychological thriller.