Mothers' Instinct (3 stars)

Mothers' Instinct

GFF 2019: A friendship between two housewives turns deadly in this Belgian thriller

A fond female bond becomes bent and twisted in Mothers' Instinct (Duelles), an elegant psychological thriller from Belgian director Olivier Masset-Depasse (Illégal). Echoing Hitchcock with a hint of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, it has bourgeois backstabbers in its sights.

Set in suburban Brussels in the early 60s, it finds housewives Alice (Veerle Baetens) and Céline (Anne Coesens) living lives of almost Stepford-esque flawlessness in twin houses, with their young sons Théo and Maxime (Jules Lefebvres and Luan Adam) as apparently inseparable as their mothers. When Maxime is killed in a tragic accident, witnessed by a helpless Alice, it instantly puts paid to the women's friendship. In the fraught aftermath, fingers are pointed and resentment begins to fester.

There are a number of interesting factors at play which complicate and exacerbate the tense situation: the close proximity of their once identical, now devastatingly different lives; that Maxime was a long-awaited child; that it is Alice not the bereaved Céline who is flagged up as being emotionally vulnerable and overprotective; then there's Théo's eerie apathy towards his friend's death and his own potentially fatal peanut allergy.

It's a class act. The era is meticulously recreated, the score smoothly sinister and the setting provides a ripe contrast between domestic perfection and human frailty and failings. Both women's husbands show a lack of sensitivity to their situations and the way their friendship crumbles suggests it is built on little more than convenience, while the film gets plenty of mileage from the erratic and discomforting nature of grief. It also highlights the way childless women are viewed with suspicion as Céline rapidly becomes a social pariah – a pregnant woman recoils at her touch, Alice's mother-in-law warns her off.

Though it descends into fairly nasty Fatal Attraction-style territory, it largely resists melodrama, unfolding, in the main, in flickers of paranoia and jealousy. Baetens and Coesens prove subtle enough as the warring women to bring a certain amount of pathos to the nightmarish predicament. That's somewhat undone by the thriller structure in a predictable but satisfying story which confirms that life is indeed a bitch.

Screening on Thu 21 and Fri 22 Feb as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2019. General release TBC.

Mothers' Instinct

  • 3 stars
  • 2018
  • Belgium / France
  • 1h 37min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Olivier Masset-Depasse
  • Cast: Veerle Baetens, Anne Coesens, Mehdi Nebbou

In Brussels in the early 60s, Alice (Veerle Baetens) and Céline (Anne Coesens) are neighbours who find themselves at odds when Céline’s son Maxime dies in a tragic accident.