‘Mothers’ Instinct’ Review: Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain Primly Do Battle in a Loopy Suburban Psychodrama

Not every good film is necessarily a good time, and vice versa. On the latter front, see “Mothers’ Instinct,” a 1960s-set suburban psychodrama too silly to secure our belief and too reserved to pass muster as go-for-broke camp — but still compulsive enough, twisty enough and finally berserk enough to keep us hooked through all its tonal and narrative lane-changing. As a pair of model homemakers and next-door neighbors whose close friendship is severely undone by sudden tragedy, even stars Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain don’t always seem to be making entirely the same movie: Hathaway’s sly, high-gloss vamping points to a more brittly amusing one than Chastain’s earnest emotional commitment, turning their characters’ escalating picket-fence battle into a compelling tussle for the soul of the script itself. One wins, and not predictably so.

First-time feature director Benoît Delhomme, however, doesn’t have much command over this strange, wriggling story, which really calls for an assertive stylist to choose a pitch (in this case, probably the higher the better) and stick to it with gusto. A gifted cinematographer whose credits range from Tran Anh Hung’s “The Scent of Green Papaya” to Julian Schnabel’s “At Eternity’s Gate,” Delhomme also assumes camera duties here, contributing a consistent visual quality to proceedings — the whole film appears to play out in a permanent middle-American springtime, all shimmery young greens and soft sunlight — that never quite binds into atmosphere. Imagine Todd Haynes directing a reboot of “Desperate Housewives” and you’re perhaps in the ballpark of what “Mothers’ Instinct” would like to be, though the film feels too worked-over, its humor too erratic, to say for certain. Already out in multiple international markets, the film will be released Stateside (at an as-yet-unspecified date) by Neon.

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Delhomme was a late replacement for director Olivier Masset-Depasse, who certainly did have a handle on the material: He wrote and directed the far superior 2018 Belgian thriller of the same title (or “Duelles” in its native French) from which “Mothers’ Instinct” has been closely adapted by writer Sarah Conradt. That film was as tight and as purposeful in its Hitchcockian pastiche as the remake is careering and conflicted, though it provides too sharp and nasty a blueprint for Delhomme’s film ever to be dull. Chastain’s and Hathaway’s performances haven’t the precisely mannered intensity of Veerle Baetens and Anne Coesens in the original, but there’s interest in the duality of their takes on the Betty Draper ideal, driven to derangement by nerves and poise respectively.

The differences between Céline (Hathaway) and Alice (Chastain) first emerge subtly in their parenting of their respective young sons Max (Baylen D. Bielitz) and Theo (Eamon Patrick O’Connell) — both only children, and both the same age, prompting a friendship that mirrors that of their mothers. Céline is the more fun, indulgent mom, her generosity reflective of the difficulty she had conceiving in the first place; Alice’s relative uptightness relates to a discreetly concealed history of mental health trouble. Are they pals because they genuinely understand each other, or because, in this housebound, pre-feminist era, they’re simply the nearest allies they have? We begin to wonder after Max, in a dreadful accident, falls to his death from his bedroom balcony, and the women grow apart, even as their hitherto distinct personae are muddled and merged.

From behind her almost inordinately chic black mourning veil — let no one accuse costume designer Mitchell Travers of failing to understand the assignment — Céline seems to silently blame Alice, who witnessed the fall but was too late to intervene. Alice, in turn, begins to wonder if she did all she could, and even as the women return to their former social routine, this push-pull dynamic of tacit reproach and self-doubt keeps them from their former closeness. Alice’s ineffectual husband Simon (a curiously miscast Anders Danielsen Lie) prefers to stay aloof, while Céline’s distraught husband Damian (ensemble standout Josh Charles, in an underwritten part) retreats into boozy isolation. In the men’s relative absence, it’s the guileless, confused Theo who becomes the point of contention between these two otherwise friendless foes.

As Céline launches a charm offensive — a kind of maternal seduction, even — on the boy, Alice grows ever more anxiously protective: Is her bereft neighbor merely seeking an outlet for her grief, or enacting some kind of covetous revenge? Conradt’s screenplay plays a lengthy second-act game of who’s-gaslighting-who, pitting one character’s rising paranoia against the other’s overstepping, and then swapping those positions for good measure, resolutely refusing to take sides until the story vaults itself to a new plane of absurdity. Even then, as victim and villain emerge in this scenario, our sympathies remain neutral — it’s so hard to read either woman’s inner life, or believe her outward behavior, by this point that “Mother’s Instinct” invites nothing so much as coolly morbid fascination, and perhaps more dry laughter than it intends.

Nobody here is working without care. There’s as much conviction to Hathaway’s proud black-widow blend of decorum and hostility — evoking, in her best moments, Joan Crawford at her most tragically acidic — as there is to Chastain’s unraveling all-American decency. Their work is matched in determination by Delhomme’s rigid mise-en-scène, drawing our eye past the Easter-egg pastels of the costumes and soft furnishings to hard angles and somber shadows. But “Mothers’ Instinct” doesn’t breathe: It hasn’t the grandeur of great melodrama, nor the savoir-faire of great noir. Like its mismatched heroines, it’s constantly, twitchily figuring itself out, as we sit tight, intrigued, tensely waiting for it to trip.

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