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Mothers' Instinct review - 'Mad Women' | reviews, news & interviews

Mothers' Instinct review - 'Mad Women'

Mothers' Instinct review - 'Mad Women'

Sixties suburban duel veers between daftness and spooky power

Complimentary brittleness: Celine (Anne Hathaway) and Alice (Jessica Chastain)Alyssa Longchamp

This is a Nineties psycho thriller in Mad Men clothes, undermining its Sixties suburban gloss and Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain’s desperate housewives with genre clichés, yet sustained by the courage of debuting director Benoît Delhomme’s un-Hollywood conviction.

Alice (Chastain) and Céline (Hathaway) are friends and neighbours, bonding over their eight-year-old sons Theo (Eamon Patrick O’Connell, pictured bottom with Hathaway) and Max (Baylen D. Bielitz). They team up, too, over Alice’s desire to return to work in journalism, inevitably dismissed by respective husbands Simon (Anders Danielsen Lie) and Damian (Josh Charles). Alice has a history of hospitalised mental illness, Céline of pregnancy problems, and when Alice fails to prevent Max’s fatal fall, cracks appear in their complementary brittleness.

Delhomme and screenwriter Sarah Conradt suggest patriarchy-constricted suburban screams familiar from Mad Men, or Todd Haynes’ Carol and the Douglas Sirk melodramas it homaged. This is soon overshadowed, though, by a damaged duel of maternal power.

Anne Hathaway in Mothers' InstinctCéline’s mourning veil at Max’s funeral is Vogue-chic and Bible-black, hiding glistening animal eyes. Alice is meanwhile coldly watchful, Céline’s unsettling attitude to Theo deep-freezing their friendship. Like January Jones’ kinship to a Valium-numbed Grace Kelly in early Mad Men, Chastain and Hathaway’s era-appropriate looks help define their characters: both classically beautiful, but with fierce strength steeling Chastain’s bones, while Hathaway slips between twitchy grief and frozen perfection, like Jackie Kennedy after the assassination. Sympathy shifts between these two women on the verge of nervous breakdowns, till both performances stop asking for it. We slip from one film into another as Alice clumsily pours her heart out, recalling how she couldn’t love Theo at first, and Céline faces us, head turned from the oblivious speaker, skin undead ashen.

Narrative, hero and villain stay uncertain. Alice’s bonkers unilateral ordering of a key character’s autopsy shows how far paranoia has hurled her over the edge, while Theo’s spooky indifference to any friend but dead Max and dotty Céline is its own kind of perhaps unconscious manipulation. A matrimonial-sounding vow between a mother and son cannily adds to this simmering strangeness.

Eamon Patrick O'Connell and Anne Hathaway in Mothers' InstinctDelhomme’s cinematography and Russell Barnes’ production design meanwhile poison the neighbourhood’s perfect surface. Sedated Céline is “walking around in a cloud” in an aquamarine house, as if slowly sinking underwater; the hedge separating the women is a thorny, fairytale jungle and morally fraught border-zone which Alice can’t penetrate to save Max, yet does to protect Theo.

Delhomme doesn’t really integrate the repressive milieu which might explain maternal instincts going overboard. This is instead trivialised by tropes from The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992) and its subgenre of female cuckoos infiltrating domestic nests. Abandoning even pastiche period reality, we can instead enjoy these mothers powered by protective instincts more powerful than patriarchy, black dagger stilettos descending as ineffectual husbands fade away.

Delhomme uncertainly mislays emotion, but deserves great credit for finally pushing far beyond Hollywood norms (matching Duelles [2018], the original Belgian adaptation of Barbara Abel’s significantly different, inferior novel). Climactic scenes veer between risible and indelibly icy, over the soothing propagandistic drone of Camelot-era TV, its closedown and hissing void.

Hathaway slips between twitchy grief and frozen perfection, like Jackie Kennedy after the assassination


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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