Nicoline, an experienced psychologist, starts a new job at a penal institution, despite the fact that she resolved to never return to psychiatry. She meets Idris, an intelligent man with an anti-social, narcissistic personality disorder, who committed a series of grave sexual offenses. After five years of treatment, he is about to go on his first unaccompanied probation. His team of practitioners are enthusiastic about his development and behavior, but newcomer Nicoline does not trust him an inch. She tries to push his probation to the astonishment of her coworkers. Idris tries his hardest to convince Nicoline of his good intentions, but as she remains sceptical, he slowly but surely grows violent. He transforms into the manipulative man Nicoline saw in him from the beginning. A power play emerges between the two and Nicoline, in spite of her knowledge and experience, lets herself be trapped completely.
The human mind is a battleground between reason and instinct
I was fortunate enough to catch this psychological thriller in my big theater, because having international stars Carice van Houten and Marwan Kenzari making time in their undoubtedly busy schedules to appear in a small Dutch movie is certainly a sight to behold on the big screen. I left very satisfied, and at the same time, I understand the comments of people who absolutely didn't get this movie. It's because it is an insight into a human mind with no manual whatsoever. And at the same time, it tackles a subject that we as a society seem to get increasingly uncomfortable with.
This is Halina Reijn's directorial debut, and I find it a solid one. Although I hear criticism that this would be the kind of movie that only Paul Verhoeven could do true justice, I think that Reijn shows great restraint by not playing it safe, and trust her audience's intelligence. That some scene may be enigmatic and some character decisions seem to be questionable only makes it more fascinating in my experience. It certainly helps if you can enjoy character drama rather than a straightly-plotted thriller with a mandatory twist.
Far away from the big budgets and fantasy settings, van Houten and Kenzari visibly enjoy a smaller and technologically less complex project, for which they need their primary acting tools more than ever, and with success. Kenzari seems to effortlessly move between menacing and sympathetic, and van Houten displays such a repertoire of facial expressions that this may earn her a sixth Golden Calf at the Dutch Film Festival.
A psychological evaluation is the battleground of an intricate cat-and-mouse game between sex offender Idris (Kenzari) and psychiatrist Nicoline (van Houten). Idriss is charming and even sexy, but also extremely manipulative, and it is pretty clear that Nicoline is a psychologically scarred lady, something the movie hints to heavily without obligatory flashbacks or expository dialogue. I loved her struggle between the professional persona that she keeps up, and her almost animalistic side that comes out when she loses control. Her ratio and instinct are in a near-continuous battle, and while she is trying to resist Idris' attempts to destabilize her, it isn't always clear which side has the upper hand. Sometimes Reijn seems to take things a bit to far, with surrealistic scenes that miss their mark, but it is nice to see that the movie keeps up the ambiguity up to and including the end.
Seeing this movie on the big screen also reveals a lot about ourselves. The scenes of a sexual nature frequently elucidated nervous laughs from the audience, and comments of unrealistic character decisions afterwards. The movie makes a valiant attempt to dive into the complexity of female sexuality, which is something that society has always struggled with, especially now in the wake of the #metoo discussion. And I think it is something that should be debatable, unless we want to turn back the clock on 50 years of sexual liberation. After all, we are at the point where even Dutch movies resort to sex scenes where people keep their underwear on, and social media are systematically shaming people who feel too comfortable with their bodies or sexuality. We should embrace our human needs, not ignore them.
This film will divide the audience, but that also happened with most of Verhoeven's movies, some of which are considered classics now. Time will tell if Instinct has the same staying power, but for now, the cast and crew have made a very effective thriller about our dark human necessities. This should be the start of more open debate and less uneasy silence. And hopefully an impulse for Halina Reijn to make more movies.
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