Mother’s Instinct Mostly Wastes Its Two Icons

Image: Courtesy NEON.

The makers of Mother’s Instinct knew what they were doing with their casting, but this fairly tepid English-language remake of the French film Duelles is about as un-slay as a film with this title and starring Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway could be. Mother’s Instinct isn’t dreadful—debutante director Benoit Delhomme is a veteran cinematographer and acquits himself tolerably—and of course Chastain and Hathaway have enough star power to sustain almost any ninety minute movie.  But the film is disappointingly straight-faced and less fun than it really should’ve been. It’s not persuasive enough to take seriously nor is it charismatic enough to let its leads chew the scenery.

Mother’s Instinct begins by establishing its two leads, Alice (Jessica Chastain) and Celine (Anne Hathaway) are best friends, neighbors and second mothers to their respective sons. Their husbands—this being the 1960s—are usually off at work, and as the film begins, Alice is the one throwing Celine her birthday party. Despite the occasional moments of performance early on that establish a subtextually suggestive intimacy between the two, the tradwives are purely platonic besties and each devoted to their husbands but even more so to their sons, who are as close to one another as their parents are. However, their neighborly idyll is shattered when a devastating tragedy strikes Celine and Alice comes to believe her friend privately blames her for it, setting the stage for the suburban mothers’ psychological warfare.

The plot sounds like a lot of fun but there are some small issues that add up to make this potential camp classic less than the sum of its parts. For one, despite some scenes hitting just the right level of middle-brow silliness, much of it is played too straight. Some strong elements and story beats manage to elicit some legitimate drama and tension, though these are too brief and ultimately too half-hearted to truly become a boon to the film, instead serving only to dispel the hyper-real comedy that starts to brew. Anyone who went in hoping to take this seriously will have their hopes dashed by the out of nowhere third act when the film turns into the silliest of nonsense and Hathaway gets half a chance to start chewing the scenery. Both women give good turns, especially Hathaway who certainly bags the juicier part, but I can’t help but wonder if the film mightn’t have worked better if they’d switched roles. Hathaway has more innate likeability and vulnerability while Crimson Peak proved that Chastain can play the vengeful Greek fury like no one else (that’s still her best performance by the way). Here they’re cast against type and it feels like it.

Celine (Anne Hathaway) smiles, wearing sunglasses and seated behind the driver's wheel.
Anne Hathaway as Celine in Mother’s Instinct. Image: courtesy NEON.

More suspicious is the Benoit Delhomme director credit. Originally Duelles director Olivier Masset-Depasse was supposed to direct but Delhomme stepped up when Masset-Depasse withdrew. Delhomme is a phenomenal cinematographer—The Proposition and At Eternity’s Gate are two of my favourite pieces of film photography ever—but his inexperience shows in the lack of confident voice and style the film has, it looks and feels as if it were produced on a tiny budget, belied by the two big names attached. Mother’s Instinct reunites him with editor Juliette Welfling from Free State of Jones, whose editing has been foundational for making the films of Jacques Audaird as magnetic as they are. She’s also worked with At Eternity’s Gate director Julian Schnabel and in my personal opinion, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly might just be the best edited film of all time. That makes the strangely meandering quality of Mother’s Instinct all the more puzzling. It may be a small issue but it sets a precedent: the opening and closing titles are awful. Just bland basic font appearing over the opening sequence, no fanfare or sense of atmosphere and tone, just getting them out the way, and the establishing shot of the two women’s houses presents no sense of the hyper-real duality of their characters they way it was presumably meant to.

Mother’s Instinct tries to establish some good melodramatic symbolism, dressing Hathaway in blues and blacks and Chastain in greens and whites, with the women’s homes similarly color-coordinated—and it’s to this decision that I attribute Chastain’s awful platinum blond hair—but it never escapes a quite leaden sense of televisual realism. The finesse isn’t there, not in respect to its being a melodrama nor a psychological thriller. It’s neither and both and doesn’t do more than tease the viewer with the anticipation of something further yet to come and when it finally does, it just feels as boring as it is meaningless. It seems under the impression that some kind of meaning or intellectual value can be gleaned from their tale of suburban suspicion, but all its ideas are as passé as the decor and it doesn’t lean far enough into the camp subversion that might have turned that fatal flaw into a saving grace. It’s like a joke being repeated by someone who didn’t really get it when they heard it.

Written by Hal Kitchen

A graduate of the University of Kent, Reviews Editor Hal Kitchen joined Film Obsessive as a freelance writer in May 2020 following their postgraduate studies in Film with a specialization in Gender Theory and Studies. In November 2020 Hal assumed their role as Reviews Editor. Since then, Hal has written extensively for the site, writing analytical and critical pieces on film, and has represented the site at international film festivals including The London Film Festival and Panic Fest.

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