Locarno 2019: Instinct review


Fans of Game of Thrones will be used to seeing Carice van Houten as a sexually powerful witch whose actions frequently cross moral lines, but her new film in which she stars with Marwan Kenzari, last seen in Guy Ritchie’s Aladdin, is an altogether different affair.

Written by Esther Gerritsen and Reijn, Instinct tells the story of Nicoline (van Houten) a respected psychologist working in the prison system. We first see her taking part in a drill where she role plays a potentially violent inmate and is bundled away by a mob of riot clad police. It is a foreshadowing of the confusion of roles, the temporary suspension of power and intimacy with danger that will later become all too real.

In her new job, she meets Idris (Kenzari), a sex offender who has the lazy charm of Oscar Isaac but with a Travis Bickle-style Mohican. He’s a physically attractive man who has done horrible things to women and part of that has involved seduction. Nicoline even points this out asking why he goes to such lengths of seduction to then violently assault his victims. Although we don’t hear the extent of his crimes, we hear enough – a pelvis broken – to understand that there is no ambiguity here. There’s also the sense that Idris – in the context of the institution – has a commanding presence, obviously thinking himself a step above the psychologically damaged and paedophiles he is surrounded by.

Nicoline’s private life doesn’t offer any clues to her growing infatuation. She has a brief affair with an attractive coworker and she has family that if anything is overly affectionate. Her attraction to Idris, therefore, can’t be written off with some glib psycho-babble about compensation or some such. It is just that she is turned on by him not in spite of him being a rapist but because. Idris himself toys with her and the power game that ensues sees Nicoline skirt the very limits of danger.

It’s hard to fathom what Instinct is trying to say other than there are some dark fantasies that resist conventional explanation or psychological diagnosis. Is it – as Idris says – that women have far more rape fantasies than men? Are we supposed to take this as a love story between a rapist and his therapist? Or understand there’s some sort of equivalence to them? There are moments in the film that just feels wrong, sometimes complex and wrong and sometimes just plain wrong.

The 72nd Locarno Film Festival takes place from 7-17 August 2019.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty