Locarno Film Review: ‘Instinct’

Guy Lodge

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Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s been underappreciated. (She just, after all, landed an Emmy nod to send off her vivid work as Melisandre in the HBO juggernaut.) But few filmmakers have tested her emotional breadth and technical control the way Verhoeven did — and for anyone who’s forgotten the extent of van Houten’s skill set, actress-turned-filmmaker Halina Reijn’s impressive, icily disciplined debut feature “Instinct” provides a fearsome reminder.

Perhaps van Houten just responds best to the care of a confident provocateur. It’s apt that her strongest big-screen showcase since “Black Book” is the kind of hot, confrontational psychodrama you can imagine Verhoeven himself dreaming up, albeit with a frank view of gendered desire and power play that clearly establishes a woman’s perspective behind the camera. (Both tonally and thematically, it would make a fine, subtly contrasting companion piece to the Dutchman’s recent “Elle.”)

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Intelligently sensational adult fare, crafted with paper-cut precision on all fronts, it stars van Houten as a prison psychologist who finds herself locked in a who-blinks-first game of sexual suppression with a convicted serial rapist — played with equally gutsy impact by Marwan Kenzari, fresh from his turn as Jafar in Disney’s “Aladdin” remake. The leads’ blockbuster connections should help “Instinct” (a bold selection for Locarno’s populist-minded Piazza Grande strand) rack up arthouse sales as it blazes its way through the festival circuit.

If the lousy “Basic Instinct 2” hadn’t already squandered it on a subtitle, “Risk Addiction” might have been a suitable title for Reijn’s debut: Its considerable tension hinges on just how close van Houten’s protagonist is willing to skate to violent harm in the name of psychological curiosity, erotic arousal or both.

Fortyish and formidably single, Nicoline (just the name sounds like a hidden bad habit) is a self-reliant career woman, with a wardrobe and apartment austerely streamlined to give away little of her interior life — which evidently has its share of damage, if disconcerting interactions with her clingily affectionate mother (Betty Schuurman) are anything to go by. We first encounter her in the throes of what appears to be a harrowing breakdown, held under restraint by several male officers, though it turns out she’s merely acing a role-playing exercise at work. It’s not the first time we’ll question the connection between her thoughts and her actions.

Newly hired at a high-rise correctional facility in a nondescript patch of Dutch suburbia, Nicoline arrives with a brisk, professional demeanor: She’s not really out to make friends, though a strictly carnal dalliance with handsome colleague Alex (Pieter Embrechts) defeats her better judgment. Charged with assessing the suitability of long-term inmates for parole, she clashes almost immediately with fellow staff members over the case of Idris (Kenzari), who has served five years on multiple rape charges. They believe he’s a reformed and repentant man, ready to return to the outside world. Nicoline’s first impression of Idris could hardly be more different, and with every taut, unnerving session she has with him, her conviction that he remains a danger to society deepens.

How can they have reached such opposite conclusions? The answer is at once bluntly simple and impossibly thorny: Nicoline has sexual chemistry with the rapist that her colleagues do not. To them, his imposing physique and Travis Bickle mohawk belie his cheerful, sociable good conduct; she, rather, sees that laddish charm as a front for more vicious, sadistic impulses. It’s perhaps a flaw of Reijn and novelist Esther Gerritsen’s otherwise pithy, perceptive script that Idris’ other minders are so unanimously convinced of his improvement — have they never encountered a charismatic abuser before? — but thankfully, the morbid bond that develops between him and Nicoline is rather more complex.

For Nicoline regards her repulsed attraction to Idris as a kind of case study in itself, almost goading him into pursuing her, which brings up nervy questions of consent, culpability and compliance. When she refuses his request for another therapist, is she exploiting his predatory weakness — itself a kind of predation — or exposing his true psychological nature? There are no tidy answers or upright moral judgments here, and while it goes without saying that the film’s very premise should carry every trigger warning going, “Instinct” is no glibly lurid shocker: Reijn and Gerritsen are sensitive both to the nuanced gender politics of the situation and to the occasional reckless, visceral irrationality of human desire.

This would all come to nothing if the actors weren’t up to the task, but van Houten and Kenzari are astonishing, both individually and as a crashing, combustible unit. Van Houten etches the internal conflict between Nicoline’s intellectual hauteur and her treacherous body language in anxious, exacting fashion, while Kenzari is a volatile wild card, turning on a dime from calculated flirtation to instinctive menace; in their most riveting scenes together, you sense two people fighting out-of-body urges to a dangerous draw. Reijn, a celebrated actress in her own right, spent 15 years in theater director Ivo van Hove’s company — experience that shows in her tight, intimate staging and framing of the pair’s verbal duels.

If “Instinct’s” best scenes have the livewire, poised-to-shatter immediacy of great theater, however, it never feels airless or boxed-in. Working with cool tones and clean lines, d.p. Jasper Wolf (fresh from his striking work on Sundance favorite “Monos”) is consistently attentive to the space around and between the performers, moving the camera to reflect their own raised or dropped defenses; editor Job ter Burg (a regular Verhoeven collaborator, as it happens) likewise cuts the conflict in non-intrusive but quietly screw-tightening ways.

There are stray moments of first-feature overstatement here: We don’t need Nicoline to watch a wildlife documentary about African predators to grasp the contradictory nature of her conduct, for example, while a text message of bumper-sticker feminist sloganeering pinging through at her lowest ebb is a glib irony too far. Still, these few missteps stand out entirely because of the assured sangfroid Reijn and her team otherwise show in the face of such hazardous material. As the #MeToo era continues to reshape film industry standards, there have been disingenuous complaints in some quarters that it’ll lead to a more timid cinema, one that’s creatively inhibited so as not to cause any offense. “Instinct,” on the other hand, shows that any subject can remain on turned tables.

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