Sun. Dec 8th, 2019

Toronto Review: Carice van Houten is stunning in the provocative Oscar contender ‘Instinct’

Courtesy of TIFF

Halina Reijn’s debut feature is an explosive and subversive tale for the #Metoo era

In her feature debut, which will represent the Netherlands in this year’s Best International Feature Oscar race, Halina Reijn creates a daring, provocative film that addresses themes which, despite being at the heart of the #Metoo movement, offers a fresh perspective on the blurring lines between a victim and an abuser.

The film, which premiered to sold-out shows at TIFF, asks the question: if lack of consent is what defines a sexual assault victim, what if the victim gives consent mostly due to past traumas that have made them troubled, confused and seeking some strange comfort or pleasure in sadistic sexual relationships? Would they still count as victims? Or will they be complicit? Or perhaps, do they count as self abusers?

These interesting questions are fascinatingly addressed in INSTINCT, a film that few directors would dare to create at a time when the #Metoo discourse has been narrowed down to victim and abuser. The lines are far more blurred, Halina Reijn argues, and the abuse is far more than sexual as her debut feature shows. It is a wonderful twist to what has been a one-dimensional discussion that focuses primarily on creating a monster out of an abuser and an angel out of the victim, regardless of the gender of the victim and abuser. But what if they are both complicit – and what if the abuse is not as inescapable as it’s typically portrayed?

In every frame, every scene and every brilliant line of dialogue, INSTINCT refuses simplification of an extremely complex matter. Unafraid of provoking audiences who have been accustomed to clear lines drawn in similarly themed films, or even more pulp-like depictions of sexual sadism (Fifty Shades of Grey), INSTINCT starts as a Fifty Shades-esque picture only to develop into something far deeper and much more illuminating. Most importantly, it seeks not to pander or please an audience but to disturb, disrupt and question preconceived notions.

Veteran psychologist Nicoline (Carice van Houten) accepts the position of a psychological supervisor in a men’s rehab facility. There she meets Idris (Marwan Kenzari of the live-action Aladdin) who is assigned to her caseload. Having been convicted five years ago of sexual assault, Idris is awaiting release and it’s all in Nicoline’s hands to determine his fate. As the two hold frequent sessions, Nicoline begins to develop a strange attraction to Idris – and her world is then shattered.

Carice van Houten delivers a stunning performance that’s one of the year’s best. As the bruised, troubled and agonizing Nicoline, she’s incredible in a challenging role that requires impeccable craft and insight into what’s it like to seek pain and experience tormenting and conflicting desires and emotion. Kenzari, in his best performance date, is equally astonishing. Menacing, manipulative and calculating, he is such a joy to watch in this star-making role. And when the film takes a sharp turn from the conventional, the two actors elevate it to stirring, unforgettable levels. The picture is likely to see a solid festival run and potentially surprising box office returns if given a proper theatrical run.

Verdict: Provocative, brilliantly written and superbly acted, INSTINCT is one of the most daring foreign films of the year. A film that pushes the envelope, asks big questions and never lets go of its ambition. Great films leave you thinking, contemplating and seeing the world in a different lens. INSTINCT does just that.

Grade: A-

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