TIFF 2019: Instinct by Halina Reijn
Halina Reijn's feature debut Instinct world-premiered in Locarno, screened in Toronto, is selected for London and will open the 2019 Netherlands Film Festival. Geoffrey Macnab reports.
It was always part of the plan. When Halina Reijn was growing up, her childhood ambition was to become an actress... and a director as well.
Reijn has had a glittering career on stage and screen in the Netherlands, winning numerous awards in the process. She starred in films made by the great and the good of Dutch filmmaking talent, such as Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, Alex van Warmerdam's Grimm and Tamar van den Dop's Blind. She has written books and screenplays. She is known as the muse of the renowned Belgian theatre director, Ivo van Hove, touring the world in plays that he has staged. She starred opposite Jude Law in his adaptation of Luchino Visconti's seamy, noirish Obsession (1943), itself inspired by James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice, and she gave grandstand performances in Van Hove's productions of Jean Cocteau's La Voix Humaine and The Fountainhead.
Now, Reijn has made her feature film directorial debut. Instinct (which picked up the Variety Piazza Grande Award at Locarno as well as a Special Mention - Best First Feature) is based on an idea that the director herself had. It is about an experienced female prison psychologist (Carice van Houten) who begins an affair with a patient/inmate (Marwan Kenzari) who is locked up for crimes of sexual violence. A cosy chamber piece this certainly isn't.
"I was annoyed by the fact that I couldn't make up everything myself," Reijn recalls of herself as a kid who loved performing but also wanted to call the shots. If somebody else was telling her what to do, she adds, she would feel like a "circus animal."
Yet as her career progressed, Reijn could see more clearly how her considerable talents were an essential component within artistic collaborations. She worked often with directors like Van Hove (with whom she has collaborated for 20 years and to whom she gives complete control). If she believed in them, she found it would be exhilarating to help them realise their visions. "I am very good at totally surrendering to a director and really becoming clay in his hands. I don't ask questions. I just... feel. I go into his heart or brain or whatever and I completely mould to his being." Nonetheless, Reijn always had the hankering to "create something myself."
The idea of a professional woman choosing to having an affair with a known rapist ("sex with a psychopath" as Reijn puts it) might sound like something out of a late night thriller, but Instinct is based on true stories. Reijn had the idea for the film after watching a documentary on love affairs conducted in prison. One of the affairs involved a sexual offender and his psychiatrist. "I was totally intrigued by the question of how you can fall for someone like that when you know better than any other person - because you're trained to know - what the traps are and how manipulative these people are."
No, Reijn never considered playing the role of the psychologist herself. That would have been biting off far too much given that she hadn't directed a feature before. Instead, she cast her close friend Carice van Houten, whom she has known since the start of her professional acting career and with whom she runs the production company Man Up, dedicated to creating female stories from a female perspective.
Intriguingly, Reijn suggests that there is a lot of her own personality in the self-destructive prison psychiatrist who embarks so recklessly on the affair. "Almost all the parts I did with Ivo are themed around this masochism, self-destruction, sexuality and power," she says.
In directing Instinct, Reijn drew closely on her experiences working with Van Hove. "He was there all the time, on my shoulder as it were. He doesn't know this but he was so close to me while I was directing it. Carice has never worked with him but knows him so well through my connection with him. We both felt he was there constantly, like a ghost, watching us and being with us. Also, the themes of this film - power and sexuality - are so close to him."
Yes, Reijn acknowledges, directing is stressful - but it isn't nearly as demanding as acting. She likens the pressure of acting to the scrutiny her boyfriend Daniël de Ridder, a former professional footballer, faced every time he played. She faced a similar level of expectation. When her producer Frans van Gestel of Topkapi Films warned her that she would find directing exhausting, she told him it was "nothing like being on stage!"
"If you have a sports career or are a ballerina, there comes a time when you have to stop because of age," she says. "There are, of course, actors who continue until they die and I am, of course, jealous of them, but for me acting is too heavy."
"It is such a burden, so intense, so emotional... Directing is about your soul but at the same time, it is about managing a team. It is much more technical. You can stand there with your big coat on and your boots, your hair looks horrible, you have pimples everywhere and you can still be directing. As an actress, if you don't feel good or you don't look right, it will affect you - and you are irreplaceable. Everybody is looking at you."
Reijn was meticulous in her preparation for Instinct. After all, she was very conscious that her two leads, Van Houten and Kenzari, are both major movie stars. One had been in Game of Thrones, the other in Disney's Aladdin. They knew as much about filmmaking as she did and she wanted to "really be on their level, and then on a higher level to help and guide them through this process."
Early in the rehearsal period, following the example of Ivo van Hove, she gathered all the actors and crew members into a room together and told them why she was making the film and why it mattered so much to her. This engendered a sense of collective responsibility and involvement.
Producer Frans van Gestel of Topkapi Films pays tribute to Reijn's professionalism. He deliberately made the film, supported by the Netherlands Film Fund, as 100% Dutch, not a co-production. That meant it was easier and quicker to finance and that there was less pressure on the director. She consequently describes the 23 days of shooting in Bijlmer Bajes (a famous Amsterdam prison now closed down) as "the happiest days of my life."
Topkapi had been working with Reijn on various projects before Instinct was greenlit. When it became apparent this was going to be her debut feature as director, the Topkapi boss was determined to provide her with the most secure environment in which to make the movie. "She was a team player. By the time we were in financing, I had to find her the best possible crew. She trusted me... it worked out perfectly well. We had a great team. She is into the creative process of building stories and building characters. On top of that, she is really smart. She learns fast."
"Halina didn't feel to me at all like an actress who, in a very forced way, wanted to be a director," Van Gestel continues. "She is a creator. She is a storyteller. And she is extremely aware of development and of the whole process of filmmaking."
Having just completed Instinct, Reijn and Van Houten are already working on a TV series together, made through their Man Up production company. Red Light is about prostitution and human trafficking. Van Houten plays a prostitute trying to escape her pimp. Reijn is a wealthy, pampered opera singer, obsessed with having a baby. The third character is a police detective played by Belgian actress Maaike Neuville. The three women's lives overlap in many intriguing ways. "Basically, it's about three women trapped in a situation they want to get out of," Reijn concludes.
SEE NL Magazine #36 September 2019 / Locarno - Venice - Toronto - Netherlands Film Festival Issue
SEE NL is published four times per year by Eye International and The Netherlands Film Fund and is distributed to international film professionals.