Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 17, 2019 7:30 pm 
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A Belgian period psychological thriller that's more successful in style than tone and action

This campy early-Sixties-set Sirkian melodrama liberally flavored with murder has a touch of Hitchcock - and an gloss of the absurd from the beginning that it too little recognizes. It begins with two perfectly matched families. Living in a Tudor-style house divided down the middle (at twilight it could be a painting by Magritte), are a pair of immaculate housewives, their corresponding suited working men, and two smocked same-aged young schoolboys - living side by side in a double house, and spending much of their spare time happily together. Suspenseful, Bernard Hermann-esque music, however, hints that things aren't right from the start. (This score never allows the action a chance to be anything but doom-ridden.) Things will soon go very rapidly downhill in a way that's hard to take seriously. This is something that doesn't happen with HItchcock, nor would the almost total lack of contact with the outside world beyond house, hospital, church, and undertaker. Hitchcock sets his movies in the world; the Belgian filmmaker Olivier Masset-Depasse staes everything in a smug, semi-satirical bubble. This is a tongue-in-cheek kind of nostalgia.

The opening sequence is a teasing fake-out, an allusion to Hitchcockian suspense sequences when we seem to be voyeuristically peering in on a murder - or an adultery, but it turns out to be only a surprise party. The nervous score begins, and never really stops thereafter.

After the friendliness of the two families is made clear, peace is definitively destroyed when one boy, Maxime (Luan Adam) son of Céline (Anne Coesens) and Damien (Arieh Worthalter), falls from his bedroom window to his death while trying to retrieve their cat, Popeye, from a ledge. He doesn't know cats have nine lives and little boys don't. Alice (Veerle Baetens), wife of Simon (Mehdi Nebbou), happens to be in the yard next door and sees Maxime walking out dangerously on a ledge, but can't do anything to stop him from falling. It's soon evident that Céline, maybe in site of herself, holds Alice responsible for Maxime's demise. We may not be completely sure what happened either: the film is better at mood and melodrama than action, and this film, whose look is so well crafted (interiors, outfits) but may falter in lingo at times (I'm convinced nobody in French or English said "Have a nice day" back then anymore than, till VietNam, soldiers said "Sorry about that"), could have used sharper editing in some places.

Anyway, as we get to funeral and burial and all that, Théo, Alice and Simon's little boy, now assumes center stage, and assumes a creepy role in relation to Maxime, protesting violently when his toy threatens to be buried with the dead boy. It's handy - er, dangerous - that the two families are so chummy they have access to each other's houses.

Alice is ridden with guilt at first, but becomes hostile in the course of Céline's passive-aggressive tormenting. From now on Céline and Alice become, as Jordan Mintzer puts it in his Hollywoood Reporter review, "two of the most hostile neighbors to hit the screen since Michael Keaton moved into Pacific Heights or Jack Nicholson landed next door to Helen Hunt in As Good as It Gets." It's evident that only one of the ladies will survive this ongoing battle.

It's starting to be evident that Alice wants to move away from this hostile environment. Not quite soon enough. (Warning: if you haven't seen this film yet and want to be surprised, don't read what follows.) What emerges is that Céline wants not to hurt Théo in revenge, but to have him all to herself as a replacement for Maxime, and get rid of the competition. Céline's husband Damien commits suicide (or does he? as I said, the physical action isn't well conveyed), and while Théo, who's having trouble sleeping, gets a dose of chloroform from Céline, she polishes off Théo's parents with gas. The idyllic final sequence when Céline and Théo, who has formally accepted her as his adoptive parent, walk off into the horizon on a beach, seems strangely out of key with the increasingly nightmarish events that have led up to it. This was a place where the score might have injected more overt irony. It must be noted that there was no gradual leading up to the rash of violence at the end - the kind of slow build one finds in a Claude Chabrol thriller, which this also somewhat imitates.

This tale may invite comparison with other Sirkian nostalgia films, such as Todd Haynes' Far from Heaven and his even more beautiful film (thanks partly to the cinematography of Ed Lachman), Carol. But Masset-Depasse doesn't draw us in emotionally the way Haynes does. Nor, as noted, does he acknowledge or make use of the degree to which this film has the air of a "costumed dark comedy," as Mintzer notes, whether it knows it or not, while aspiring to the status of "nostalgic psychological thriller." In short, there are serious problems of tone here. There are problems with the narrative structure and the editing too. The actors do their best, and shine in individual scenes. What does succeed throughout are the set design, costumes and general look of things, and Hichame Alouie's handsome, highly colored cinematography.

The film is based on a novel by Belgian writer Barbara Abel.

Mother's Instinct/Duelles,] 97 mins., debuted at Toronto, showing also at Ghent, Chicago, Brussels, and a number of other festivals. It was screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Festival. It opens theatrically in France 1 May.

SFFILM showtimes:
Sun, Apr 21 at 7:30 pm - Victoria Theatre
Tue, Apr 23 at 8:45 pm - Victoria Theatre


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