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LES ARCS 2019

Halina Reijn • Director of Instinct

“I want to provoke”

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- We chatted to Dutch first-time director Halina Reijn about her feature Instinct, screened in the main competition at the Les Arcs Film Festival

Halina Reijn • Director of Instinct
(© Alexandra Fleurantin / Les Arcs Film Festival)

In Instinct [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Halina Reijn
film profile
]
, her debut feature as director, Halina Reijn enlists the help of post-Game of Thrones actress Carice van Houten, cast as a therapist developing feelings for her patient – a violent serial rapist (Marwan Kenzari) that everyone considers to be a changed man — everyone but her. We chatted to her on the occasion of the film’s screening in the main competition at the Les Arcs Film Festival.

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Cineuropa: People can get offended when it comes to portrayals of female sexuality nowadays, preferring a simple, black and white approach. Which is not what you are doing at all.
Halina Reijn
: I saw a TV programme five years ago and one episode was called Forbidden Love in Prison. It wasn’t a one-off incident – it happens quite often in these settings. A female guard would fall in love with a criminal or a psychiatrist with a rapist. I took these stories — so you could say it’s based on true events — and started to develop it way before #MeToo. I was always fascinated by sex and power. I come from the theatre and I have been working with [director] Ivo van Hove. We would do all these classical plays, Hedda Gabler and Shakespeare, which talk about it as well – but always from a male perspective. The thing is, if you want to show female sexuality, you need to look at the grey areas. I am strong, but sometimes I want protection. Why do I still have these urges? Polarisation is good and we need it as a society, but not in art.

Nicoline seems confused by her own feelings, as well. This discrepancy between sexual fantasy and reality reminded me of The Piano Teacher.
This movie was very important for me – whenever Isabelle Huppert plays a part, I feel less alone. What I wanted to show, although it might seem clichéd, was that what you fantasise about is not necessarily something you want to act out in life. Because it’s not romantic, it’s just horrible. Then again, what is female sexuality? We only just got the right to vote, basically, so we don’t know a lot about ourselves. It’s all very mysterious and vague. My movie is radical because my main character is dominant, but she is also very masochistic. It’s a metaphor of what we do as women: we either try to please everybody or we go against the grid, but who are we, really? We don’t have space to figure it out, at least not yet, so you get these Frankenstein’s monsters wanting to be mothers, daughters and businesswomen.

You can have seductive serial killers in films, no problem, but the idea to have a seductive serial rapist… It’s something you can’t normally do.
I can’t deny that these subjects are delicate. We didn’t want to glamorise rape, we never show any female nudity. At the same time, I do want to provoke. That’s why I cast Marwan Kenzari as Idris: he is good-looking and charismatic, he doesn’t have to “act” being masculine. It’s the kind of dynamic I wanted to explore in myself. Why am I drawn to this type, why don’t I just go for the sweet guy? Why do we go for something that destroys us, instead of just going to the gym, picking flowers and being happy for once? To me, that’s art – you put all your shit on the screen. But you are right, a lot of people were afraid of that film and didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

A few decades ago, so-called “erotic thrillers” were very popular, but they seem to have completely disappeared. Why do you think that is?
I like Basic Instinct, I like them all. I was always drawn to that genre, even though mine is more radical art-house. Heterosexual men are afraid of these films, thinking: If I associate myself with it, how does it make me look? With women it seems to be easier – there are the likes of Queen of Hearts [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: May el-Toukhy
film profile
]
, exploring the idea of a female perpetrator. Which can be very liberating, but for men is just confusing.

Nicoline is a symbol of all these layers of female identity. It’s not clear who she is, because she doesn’t know it herself. I think she has been abused by her mother, but I didn’t want to put too much of it in the movie. With Idris, they recognise the trauma in each other. That’s why they can’t just let go. In some ways, it’s a big “fuck you” to the hippy generation I was raised in. My generation, we don’t have a lot of boundaries. You can’t even feel your identity sometimes and that’s what this film is about, too.

I guess it helped that you found an actress who is quite fearless, as proven by her breakout role in Black Book [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, for example.
Carice is my best friend, we started out together – I was in Black Book too, playing a redhead Nazi whore. Then she went on to have an international career, but has remained my artistic soul mate. We have a production company called Man Up Film and that was exactly our goal – to show female identity in the broadest sense of the word. It’s also about two actors sitting in one room, without any special effects, just two people destroying each other. I never want to act again. I don’t know what kind of director I will be, but I know how to make them feel safe. I wanted Carice in all her shame, as shame is the key to all the parts I have played in the past. It’s where the pain comes from.

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