In the aptly-titled Instinct, the one thing that Helina Reijn’s heavy, but hugely rewarding film seems to have a clear view on is that you must, at least, trust your gut. That proves difficult for Carice Van Houten’s chilly psychologist Nicoline, who develops an attraction for her patient Idris (Marwan Kenzari), one of the violent sexual offenders at the rehabilitation centre she works at. Instinct offers the kind of story that will make cynics guffaw at the supposed clarity of its central character’s actions, when in fact Reijn resoundingly makes the case that human nature is hardly as simple as black and white. Instinct explores how we can so easily be dominated by impulse and sexual desire. Controversial by design, the film distorts the boundaries between fantasy and reality, thus exploring modes of consent, as well as sexual fantasies concerning domination.
While Reijn’s script turns the tables on the viewer multiple times within individual scenes, the dialogue throughout the pair’s tumultuous power struggle is magnetic, murkily suggestive of what may have shaped Nicoline’s frequently dismissive behavior. Instinct avoids foisting any particular assertion on the audience, suggesting that her terrible errors in judgment could well derive from past relationships with men, the questionably intimate connection she has with her mother, or even an inherent lack of self-worth. Van Houten delivers monumental, career-best work, slowly surrendering the fragments of Nicoline’s porcelain exterior to reveal the terrified, excited woman underneath. It’s the crowning glory of a forcefully erotic picture that does not merely remind us of her gifts as an actress, but also of the increasing scarcity of risky, intelligent arthouse cinema.
Published as part of London Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 2.