A borderline impossible game of Taboo could be played if one were tasked with describing Olivier Masset-Depasse’s “Mothers’ Instinct” without using the word “Hitchcockian.” The Belgian director’s luxuriant psychological thriller is so redolent of the Master of Suspense’s style, and so gorgeously robed in Thierry Delettre’s ’60s costuming that at times one expects star Veerle Baetens (“The Broken Circle Breakdown”) to turn around and just be Tippi Hedren all of a sudden. But as much as this deliciously enjoyable, spiral-shaped descent into darkness wears that influence on its immaculately cut, three-quarter-length sleeve, it also represents a subversion of even Hitch’s most femme-centric titles. Here, the devotion, jealousy, coercion, and, indeed, “Suspicion” that underpin his conception of male-female relations are ascribed to a female friendship instead.
Basing the screenplay on the novel “Derrière la haine” by Barbara Abel, Masset-Depasse and co-writers Giordano Gederlini and François Verjans are confident in their female focus, all but sidelining the male characters and freighting the women’s relationship with the darker currents of a blighted romance without ever eroticizing it. And they are significantly abetted by the yin-yanging performances from their leading duo, Baetens and Anne Coesens (here reuniting with Masset-Depasse after 2010’s “Illegal”). Both actresses are expressive but unreadable, adding greatly to the fun of guessing who is pretending and who is genuine.
The witty prologue is a slightly tacky, fake-out version of the film that, in far more elegant and gradual steps, it will become. In a flurry of stabby edits and foreboding music (Frederic Vercheval’s lurching, pit-of-stomach, back-of-neck score is nicely self-aware though never parodic in its references to Bernard Herrmann and lush 1950s melodrama), we watch pretty blonde Alice (Baetens) surreptitiously spy on her brunette neighbor Céline (Coesens). Céline drives off, and Alice lets herself in to her home and inexplicably rearranges things. It all turns out to have an innocuous explanation, but still the mood is established, as is the primary location for Anna Falguères’ pristine production design: a large neo-Tudor villa which is, unusually, divided in two, with the two families occupying adjoining halves.
Alice and Céline are actually the best of friends, their husbands Simon (Mehdi Nebbou) and Damien (Arieh Worthalter) have manly rapport, and their little boys Theo (Jules Lefebvres, striking as a creepily self-possessed child) and Maxime (Luan Adam) are so close that they’ve burrowed a hole in the dividing hedge for quicker access. But the perfect symmetry of this arrangement is shattered when Maxime falls from an upstairs window. Alice, looking over from the house next door, is the only witness and gets there just too late to stop the tragedy.
A cutting glance, an embrace withheld, an off-tone choice of word or two — soon Alice suspects Céline blames her. And soon she too is wondering if she actually did all she could: Did she harbor some unspoken animosity that contributed to a moments’s fatal hesitation? Other incidents and encounters unfold like tests of her instincts, increasing her paranoid belief that her best friend is out to punish her or Theo, simply for the crime of still being alive.
The physical contrast between the two women works well because it’s so counterintuitive, with the strong-jawed, socially successful Alice becoming the more unstable, potentially delusional of the two. Coesen’s Céline, that bit older and less kittenishly styled, projects a shyness that perhaps belies a steelier and more devious will beneath. The dynamics of a souring friendship provide perfect material for this tricksy, is-it-real-or-is-it-all-in-her-head narrative.
Masset-Depasse has a borderline Sirkian ability to make the frames of Hichame Alouie’s rich, Technicolor-aping photography represent the interior lives of his heroines. The painstakingly controlled palettes, with teal walls setting off dainty pink twin sets and tastefully patterned soft furnishings, steep the film in a femininity so heady it almost cloys, like a too-strong dose of floral perfume. And so he makes a subtle comment on the proscribed roles women were forced to fulfill back then. The men go out into the world each day, leaving their wives with no outlet for expression except to gild their cages, obsess over their children, and go slowly mad inside their matching pastel nests.
It’s an area that, if anything, Masset-Depasse could explore further, but ultimately “Mothers’ Instinct” is a thriller and so the needs of the narrative overtake those of theme or commentary in a third act that gets impressively dark, if a little disappointingly neat. But still that lingering atmosphere of sweet rot is well achieved, and the film’s sharp eye for the dysfunctional dynamics of frenemy-ship is a dirty pleasure all its own, as these perfect housewives serve each other passive aggression like petits fours and protestations of affection like they’re macarons iced with arsenic.