When the Dutch psychosexual drama Instinct premiered at TIFF last week, the comparisons to Paul Verhoeven’s 2016 erotic thriller Elle were unavoidable: Here we had an erotic thriller that prioritized power analysis over titillation, with a complicated lead actress whose desires and motivations are a mystery to everyone, including herself. In her directorial debut, Halina Reijn uses her experience as an actor to direct leads Carice van Houten and Marwan Kenzari to impressive physical performances reminiscent of the mid-budget 90s thrillers that have nearly disappeared from the multiplex.
Houten plays Nicoline, a therapist who specializes in patients with a history of violent behavior and abusive tendencies. At the beginning of the film, she joins a clinic that seems to specialize exclusively in male violent offenders. She’s quickly assigned to Idris (Kenzari) who wants to be cleared for leave to occasionally visit his son. Idris is a muscular, imposing man with a history of committing acts of violent sexual assault on multiple occasions. Despite his past, Idris has the air of a changed man. He’s polite, especially to women, and seems to say all the right things. Most of the therapists at the clinic believe he is all but cured, Nicoline harbors doubts. Her doubts, and how Idris reacts to them, are the crux of the story.
The driving question of Instinct is: Who has the power? Idris is the easy answer, but the film plays with the idea that Nicoline may be trying to set him up, derailing his recovery. It’s clear that Reijn is fascinated by the roles of predator and prey, explored explicitly in early scenes depicting Nicoline watching a nature documentary to Nicoline’s more ambiguous one-on-ones with Idris. The choreography in those scenes is gripping, creating tense drama from subtle movements and facial expressions. Reijn understands the tenseness that comes from small things, like a man leaning forward in his seat or a woman leaning back in her chair, trying to look casual while assessing possible escape routes.
When things quickly become uncomfortable with Nicoline, Idris tries to get another therapist. Nicoline curiously resists this and what follows is a thrilling tug-of-war anchored by two beautiful actors fully enthralled by their premise. The film really hits its stride once it starts delving into Nicoline’s uneasy relationship with men and sex. A sexual encounter with a fellow therapist (Pieter Embrechts) quickly becomes emotional for Nicoline. One pivotal scene shows her, drunk in her party dress with her a mess. She pounces on her suitor feverishly. He responds with restraint: “Take it easy. Look at me.” But for reasons unknown, she doesn’t know how. She crawls away from her lover onto the floor. He takes that as a cue to dominate, mounting her as she lies completely still.
Houten gives a powerhouse performance as a woman at war with her own fears and desires. As the film progresses, her wardrobe changes from sensible sweaters and pants to increasingly feminine blouses and dresses. It’s unclear whether she’s dressing up for her Idris or her lover. There is a tenseness to her interactions with both which eventually leads to a rivalry. Kenzari gives a performance that radiates with raw sexual energy. Despite his polite nature, he moves with the precision of a predator, always keyed into Houten’s every move and facial expression and responding with haste. Once Idris begins making advances on Nicoline and the lines between lust and fear are blurred to the point of abstraction. Instinct is a fascinating study of control that examines the very nature of consent.