Mothers’ Instinct Review: A Hitchcockian Thriller That Wants for a Double Dose of Camp

The film awkwardly pitches itself between a somber drama and antic melodrama.

Mothers’ Instinct
Photo: Neon

When Toddy Haynes’s May December was released last year, it prompted a worldwide (or at least Twitter-wide) reckoning with the meaning of camp. There were furious debates as to the exact parameters of the term and which works fell within them. For Mothers’ Instinct, this matter becomes a kind of existential crisis, because celebrated cinematographer Benot Delhomme’s 1960s-set directorial debut can’t decide whether it wants to be considered camp or not, as it awkwardly pitches itself between a somber drama and antic melodrama.

Like May December, this remake of the Olivier Masset-Depasse’s 2018 film Duelles is a domestic drama that throws two women into the same space and steadily ratchets up the tension between them. Alice (Jessica Chastain) and Céline (Anne Hathaway) live in neighboring homes in the suburbs. Alice’s son Theo (Eamon Patrick O’Connell) and Céline’s son Max (Baylen D. Bielitz) are best friends, and the two mothers are equally inseparable. They have well-kept homes, lush gardens, and their favorite people living next door. Don Draper himself couldn’t have come up with a more picture-perfect vision of wholesome, American happiness.

Delhomme puts his skills as a cinematographer to great use here, conjuring Alice and Céline’s world in gentle swirl of delicate pastel colors. But their domestic bliss is shattered when a tragic accident claims Max’s life in the process of Alice trying to save him. In her grief, Céline latches on to Theo, acting as a kind of second mother to him. Alice soon becomes concerned by the way Céline dotes upon her son, and even more so by the way she keeps “accidentally” endangering him. Is she enacting some sick scheme to avenge Max’s death? Is she trying to push Alice out and replace her lost son with Theo? Or is she truly just a grieving mother, searching for solace in the company of her best friend and the child they both care for.

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It’s a premise brimming with promise, giving two heavyweight actors the chance to go head-to-head. Chastain and Hathaway’s performances are skillfully delivered, but they embody the central problem of the film in that, though their characters live next door to one another in identical houses, they seem to belong to completely different worlds. Chastain gives the reserved performance of a character in a serious drama, all muted reactions and understated emotions. By contrast, Hathway is prone to almost glaring directly into the camera in a deliciously dramatic way, or contorting her face into all kinds of shocked and scandalized expressions.

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The film that Hathaway is acting in seems like a lot more fun, and there are numerous details that suggest Mothers’ Instinct aspires to this sort of theatricality. Anne Nikitin’s score is filled with the shrieking musical stings one associates with a vintage Alfred Hitchcock thriller scored by Bernard Herrmann. The build-up to Max’s accident sees Alice—in one of the many elegant ensembles that costume designer Mitchell Travers has crafted—pushing her way through the opening in the hedge between the two homes, an absurd image dripping with psychosexual undertones. Further plot twists involve missing heart medication and the vindictive use of peanut-butter cookies as the story becomes steadily more unhinged.

And yet, Mothers’ Instinct refuses to commit fully to this exaggerated style of storytelling. Its visuals are restrained, even staid, in a way that doesn’t match with the mounting paranoia of the tale. Alice becomes more and more convinced that Céline is scheming against her, and then more and more concerned that it might just all be in her head. Rather than giving us access to Alice’s psychology and reveling in her unravelling mind, the film keeps us at a respectful distance. No matter how much the plot seems to be driving us toward more sensationalized territory, Delhomme’s film retains the dour tone of a strait-laced drama.

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By the time the finale rolls around, the whole thing comes spectacularly apart. The ending features the sort of ludicrous plot twists that ought to be announced with a “Dun-dun-duuun!” and which send the film whirling away from any recognizable reality. As the conclusion to a bona-fide melodrama, this ending might actually have been a lot of fun in a campy, “I can’t believe they did that” sort of way. But because the build-up to it has been so comparatively tame, it feels jarringly out of sync with the rest of the tale, and comes off as just plain silly.

Score: 
 Cast: Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Eamon Patrick O’Connell, Anders Danielsen Lie, Josh Charles, Baylen D. Bielitz, Caroline Lagerfelt  Director: Benot Delhomme  Screenwriter: Sarah Conradt  Distributor: Neon  Running Time: 94 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2024

Ross McIndoe

Ross McIndoe is a Glasgow-based freelancer who writes about movies and TV for The Quietus, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Wisecrack, and others.

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