LFF 2019: Instinct

Carice van Houten flirts with danger in this confrontational interrogation of desire and consent

A strong contender in the First Feature Competition this year is Instinct, a psychosexual Dutch drama starring Carice van Houten as a psychologist who becomes entangled with an incarcerated sexual offender. Its narrative is based on a true story, director Halina Reijn spotted it in a Dutch newspaper and decided it would be compelling onscreen. She certainly wasn’t wrong.

Opposite van Houten is Marwan Kenzari as inmate Idris, receiving therapy treatment from van Houten’s Nicoline. Starting with their therapy sessions together, the two begin a complicated game of cat and mouse where power and desire are the key players. As their relationship deepens, van Houten begins acting in a deeply unprofessional manner, playing on the notion of some twisted chemistry between the two of them. One scene in particular bears a great resemblance in tone and style to Andrea Arnolds’s 2006 Red Road, where we see a woman perpetually stalking a male figure. Similarly, Nicoline crosses a line when she follows Kenzari on day release – a move which tips their relationship over the edge and is the catalyst for all the events that follow.

In general the cinematography is far more restrained than either of the leads but as Nicoline’s mental state breaks down, the camera begins to mirror her struggle by becoming more and more erratic.  Steady wides and locked off shots are replaced with extreme close-ups and ever increasing handheld shots which have a frustrated quality about them. Nicoline is not a likeable character (neither is Idris) but the powerful aspect of Instinct is that Reijn gives her audience ample opportunity to empathise with Nicoline, even if they do not like her. Her actions are at once bewildering and understandable because we are also privy to her internal conflicted journey.

Neither Nicoline nor Idris have a fleshed out backstory – a bold decision in a film which deals with so much trauma and pain. Yet Reijn’s decision to leave the two of them as relatively ‘blank slates’ (in her own words) allows a certain amount of projection. Nothing concrete is learned about Nicoline – an element of some sort of abuse is heavily implied regarding her mother – and the only background on Idris is the few lines that intern Marie reads aloud from his file. Instinct doesn’t require an intense backstory for either of its leads because the film makes a point of being in the moment rather than focussing on the past or even the future.

Van Houten is absorbing as a person who is fundamentally damaged, yet experiences burning desires; impulses which she should know better than to have. Watching her confront these feelings and ultimately give in to them is a dark spiral and her insatiable yet dark onscreen chemistry with Kenzari is impossible to look away from. Desire, as a theme, is a constant throughout the film – van Houten and Kenzari play out this yearning in a slow, almost painful way that replicates the exact feeling of guilt and shame at wanting something that you know you should not. It makes the skin crawl – and this should be taken as the highest compliment as director Reijn seems to effortlessly reproduce feelings of shame, power, desire and guilt onscreen.

One of the most interesting and nuanced films in the festival this year, Instinct will stay in the mind long after it has left the screen.


Updated: Oct 13, 2019

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