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Mothers’ Instinct Film Review: Hammy Thriller

Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway share a moment with their heads close to one another in the film Mothers' Instinct

Benoît Delhomme’s directorial debut Mothers’ Instinct pits two mothers against one another in hammy English-language remake of maternal psycho-thriller.

Mothers’ Instinct, Benoît Delhomme’s directorial debut, is a remake of French-spoken 2018 film Duelles. Duelles, which was based on the novel “Derrière la haine” by Barbara Abel, was relatively acclaimed. The film received 10 nominations at the Magritte Awards in Belgium, winning nine, but has now been remade and repackaged for English-language speaking audiences.

Remakes, especially ones made in the English language rather than the original tongue, are a contentious topic. Executive producer John Zois of Anton, a production company involved with both films, reductively said “Hitchockian-style suspense thrillers are still getting made in a high-end way for European audiences but they don’t often get made for an American audience”. It feels like a distinct lack of trust in audiences. This lack of trust is something that Delhomme struggles with in Mothers’ Instinct, a film that can’t quite work out if it wants to be camp melodrama or a paranoid thriller made for second-screen audiences and ends up situated somewhere stuck between the two.

With their manicured lawns and their pristine homesteads, best friends Alice (Jessica Chastain) and Celine (Anne Hathaway) embody the stereotypical Americana of the 1960s. Their husbands come home late with whisky and dinner served, while their sons Theo (Eamonn O’Connell) and Max (Baylen D. Bielitz) spend their time together in the garden and on the balcony; the balcony that one of them will fall from. This death, where a slow tilt to a mother cradling her dead son manages to invoke strong sentimentality, is the catalyst for psychological warfare between Alice and Celine, causing the lines of guilt and grief to overlap and blur as blame is instilled upon the other. 

Jessica Chastain wears a green dress in the garden and looks up in the film Mothers' Instinct
Jessica Chastain in Mothers’ Instinct (StudioCanal)

Mothers’ Instinct is strong when it’s using the grief of a mother as a way to exacerbate the trivial conflicts that occur, while fraying the primmed edges of friendship, but the film is so overblown and the performances slip into ham so often that it’s difficult to get a read on what Delhomme wants here. There are moments of camp, where the grieving mother, who looms over the film like a spectre of death, arrives at a birthday party in all black, as if she had just returned from a funeral. Then there is the young boy who remains alive, curtly speaking about his friend being put in a hole and how he won’t see him again. The scene plays out like the child is slightly demonic, his response unsettling the parents and audiences alike but it’s one that is one of many elements that lead Mothers’ Instinct to feeling so untidy.

It’s reductive to say that the film feels made for a TikTok generation, but it’s such a predictable movie that it feels designed to be spliced into vignettes of content. Hathaway chews away through her scenes, while Chastian’s paranoid descent takes so many narrative leaps that you’re completely befuddled on if either of the two outcomes the film presents make sense. The two oscar-winning actresses at the centre of this, who were also producers on the project, are a far cry from their best on screen as Delhomme’s direction is limited and brash while Sarah Conradt-Kroehler’s script is as subtle as a nightcap of chloroform.

When remaking a film outside of the English language, it is necessary to have a purpose for doing so. There is nothing fresh enough about Mothers’ Instinct to merit this being remade. The 1960s suburbia setting feels like it should come equipped with ideas on gender and the role of women in that time. There are moments where Delhomme appears to be critical of 60s suburbia but they get overshadowed often, the fleeting mention of societal expectations are instead background.  

Mothers’ Instinct: Trailer (StudioCanal)

The slow burn of Mothers’ Instinct works antithetical to the exaggerated performances, where each hammy outburst is like a shot to the chest, puncturing and deflating the tension within the film. It’s a movie that doesn’t feel like it has a strong enough voice, nor is it quite entertaining enough within the melodrama. For all its star power and handsome period costuming, this plays out more like an extended episode of Desperate Housewives than the “Hitchockian-style suspense thriller” this wanted to be. 

Mothers’ Instinct was released in UK cinemas on March 27, 2024. The film will be out in US theaters from July 26, 2024 and on digital platforms on August 13.

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