‘Instinct’ Review: An Excruciatingly Honest and Astonishing Exploration of Sexual Violence, Consent, and Voyeurism

Topkapi Films

Biting, raw, and nauseating, Instinct is almost offensively honest in its examination of sexual violence, consent, voyeurism, and duality. 

Marwan Kenzari (Aladdin, Murder on the Orient Express) is Idris, a violent serial rapist with a narcissistic personality disorder who has spent the past five years institutionalized in a correctional facility. Carice van Houten (Game of Thrones) is Nicoline, a seasoned, enigmatic prison psychologist with what appears to be a deeply disconcerting sexual history of her own.

As she expresses rather directly to her co-workers, Nicoline has no interest in a permanent job, for reasons she is reluctant to reveal – perhaps a symptom of her aversion to commitment, or her hesitancy to return to psychology. Everything she does feels elusive; her truth feels unreachable. Her clothes are generally soft, though still professional – a deviation from her sharp cheekbones, disruptively penetrating azure eyes, and the coldness she exudes in her work life. Cashmere sweaters, white t-shirts, and light-washed denim are foundational to her wardrobe. She has a family (elder sister, niece, mother), but mostly keeps to herself. Her relationship with her mother is strangely sexual and maybe abusive – which she seems to recognize only as her interactions with Idris become more intensified. 

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Joining the staff of a correctional facility, Nicoline is to evaluate prisoners who are reaching the end of their sentence, determining whether or not they are deserving of things like short-term unaccompanied leave. She is measured, intelligent, and more than a bit different from her colleagues. She is untrusting of nearly everyone – especially Idris – and disagrees with her colleagues on several accounts; they believe Idris is wholly reformed, but she is convinced he is still a danger to society. Their relationship begins to intensify, becoming exceedingly violent and sexualized by Idris’ manipulations. Nicoline becomes increasingly unstable as a result – her own issues with sexuality becoming progressively more apparent and, despite her background, she becomes trapped.

I’m reluctant to describe this relationship as an infatuation (although that is the vocabulary used in the official tagline) because there is such an advanced degree of manipulation involved. Nicoline’s fascination with Idris is more about his disarming ability to seem entirely charismatic in spite of his violent history. She seems psychologically interested in him as if his behavior and sexual attraction to her have posed a challenge. At times it feels as though Nicoline is provoking Idris into pursuing her, exploiting his rapacious weakness to expose the truth of his psychology in a f***ed-up sort of case study.

Both Nicoline and Idris are voyeurs of the other – in both corresponding and conflicting ways. Watching Idris is quite literally Nicoline’s job – she is to observe him and formulate her psychological opinion through the categorizing of his behaviors. Her surveillance of Idris, however, also feeds a more personal fascination. Idris watches Nicoline in a much more predatory manner, imposing sexuality onto her that satisfies his obsession. This expresses a sort of duality between them: despite vastly different motivations and histories, both engage in this voyeurism. 

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Instinct is excellently constructed. Jasper Wolf, who was also the director of photography on Monos, has a profound relationship with the camera. He paints clean lines, plays with warmth and color, and focuses his attention on the space around the actors. The camera intrudes into the bounds of the uncomfortable – dipping into Nicoline’s space as she sobs, perceiving every moment of strangeness. 

Less a directorial debut, Instinct feels more like the third or fourth film of an experienced director. In the wrong hands, this script could have been turned into something highly exploitative and insensitive, romanticizing the ‘relationship’ between Idris and Nicoline. With Halina Reijn’s direction, however, it remains instead a thematically complex, profoundly layered, artfully tense exercise – one which at no point glamorizes its content. Reijn keeps the film sober and intentional, completely avoiding a potentially lurid take. She is clearly interested in character study, an inclination likely emerging from her celebrated career as an actor, years of which were spent in theater director Ivo van Hove’s company.  

Both Kenzari and van Houten’s fantastic performances are most deftly encouraged by Reijn. While the dialogue is kept succinct, both leads are incredibly adept and create a mosaic of meanings, emotions, and communicative moments. Where Kenzari is a loose cannon of anger, violence, and charisma, van Houten steadily decays into a state of fragility in what is a heartbreaking and thoroughly hard-to-watch performance in the film’s second half. She is an undeniably astounding talent, which has been apparent since 2006 when she starred in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book – not to mention her notable tour-de-force reign as Melisandre in Game of Thrones. The range of emotional, psychological exploration offered to her in Instinct has allowed her to create such a stomach-churning, oscillating, and poignant performance. 

Instinct refuses to shy away from the painful – refuses to coddle or shield its viewers from such a violent, heavy topic – and yet it manages to do so in a non-exploitative manner, which is exactly what makes it so extraordinary. Instinct may feel difficult to watch, it may feel unnatural and unfamiliar, but is that not the aspiration of film? We bear witness to stories that are strange and foreign to us because they are compelling and fascinating, and because they offer us disparate experiences – and Instinct does exactly that. 

Jenna Kalishman

BA in English and film studies. Early English literature as well as fantasy and sci-fi fanatic. Bylines include Lithium Magazine, Hey Alma, and Flip Screened. @jenkalish on socials.

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