Toronto 2018 Review: DUELLES (MOTHER'S INSTINCT), Stylish Yet Stunted Nostalgic Thrills
Olivier Masset-Depasse’s Duelles is a product of the times. Though a homage to the thrillers of Hitchcock and the aesthetics of Sirk, Duelles’ conceit is one that banks on obsessions of current pop culture: nostalgia and the resurgence of female-led domestic thrillers.
Its protagonist, Alice (Veerle Baetens), is basically a Belgian Betty Draper — with a house & style evocative of quintessential 50’s urban chic. Beyond the genteel veneer though, she is one that falls in line with the rest of Hitchcock’s Blondes — mysterious, contradictory, and beset by a disabling condition (in her case, paranoia).
Duelles opens to a fake-out, a pastiche to the tension-filled voyeuristic sequences of retro-thrillers. We see Alice peering through a window, eyes carefully stalking a brunette in the distant. With a pounding score in the background, one is led to believe that there is something nefarious afoot. Yet instead of a murder or a steamy affair, Alice is merely planning to surprise her brown-haired best friend Celine (Anne Coesens).
Just like their adjoining twin homes, Alice and Celine have idyllic lives near mirrors of one another. From their hard-working, suit-wearing husbands to near-identical same-aged sons, who just like their mothers are also best friends. Their domestic ecosystem function as one, the daily routines of the families intermingled with each other.
But the tranquility of their shared lives are thrown off balance by the death of Celine’s son, a tragedy Alice suspects Celine blames on her. What soon follows is an hour and a half of Alice’s slow descent into madness. Tension is built on the uncertainty of whether paranoia is a product of self-guilt (of which Alice has a history of) or there is indeed a malevolence behind Celine’s grief and, if Alice is right, she will be taking out her revenge on Alice’s son, Theo.
The film has undertones of feminist horror as, using the tropes of locked-in mysteries, Alice's protagonist loses her agency the more the events in her life upend her domestic bliss. It is a progressively oppressive and claustrophobic mood, Alice in a quasi-paralysis as the sanctuary of her home is made foreign in front of her very eyes.
But though stylish in its execution (Duelles is definitely a sight for those who love the 50’s aesthetic), the challenge of genre throwbacks like this is balancing the familiar with the unfamiliar. Reconciling formulations fans of the genre will appreciate while at the same time crafting a story original and striking enough for modern sensibilities.
It is here where Duelles falters. The film's narrative leave viewers wanting.
As to maintain the mystery — keeping Celine’s motivations in the vague — we never truly know the message that the film seeks to convey.
Though granted plot sleight of hand is a trademark of the genre (and that seems to be what the film was going for), Duelles' doesn't do enough to create a satisfying build-up to the archetypal final chapter where all is revealed. The film suffers from character arcs and complexity overshadowed by its own obsession of sticking to the temporal-spatial nostalgia of Hitchcock.
In the end, Duelles is a novel attempt at a throwback. Aesthetically, and maybe even in the performances, one can be delighted in the execution. But in building a story — a narrative that pushes you to the edge of your seat, sticks to you like with the best of its genre — Duelles tries but fails to reach great heights.
- Olivier Masset-Depasse
- Veerle Baetens
- Mehdi Nebbou
- Anne Coesens
- Arieh Worthalter