FilmSpace at Glasgow Film Festival: Mother's Instinct; The Feeling of Being Watched; Tell it to the Bees

FilmSpace is at the 15th Glasgow Film Festival, bringing a series of reviews on loads of new films. Film critic Calum Cooper reviews a Belgian thriller with Hitchcockian vibes, an eye-opening documentary on prejudice within espionage, and the latest film from director Annabel Jankel.

Mother’s Instinct – ★★★☆☆

The first few scenes of Duelles, aka Mother’s Instinct, seem harmless enough. Two families live next door in attached twin houses in 1960s Belgium. The two women, with their burly husbands and cute young sons, are best friends, leading virtually identical lives. Alice (Veerle Baetens) organises a birthday party for Celine (Anne Coesens). The atmosphere is pleasant, and their sons play excitedly. It’s beyond idyllic.

But as we’re getting comfortable with these characters, tragedy strikes. Celine’s son dies right in front of Alice. It was an accident. Nobody is at fault. But that’s not how these women see it. With both of them struggling with the consequences, we watch as their once perfect friendship begins to dissolve. All the time we don’t know if this is merely extreme reactions to guilt, or if there’s more sinister intentions lurking underneath.

As thrillers go, it’s an outlandish premise, but nonetheless one with potential if the right card are played. And for the most part they are. Mother’s Instinct falls short of being a great film due to certain narrative choices that I believe diminished its overall impact. But it remains a nerve-wrecking watch with enough tension to cut through with a knife.

Part of the film festival’s Belgian line up, much of the  key moments of suspence come down to the film’s weaponising of the What If question. What if it had been Alice’s son in peril? Would she have gotten there quicker? What if Celine truly blames Alice for what happened to her child? Does that explain the small but unexplained changes that have been happening to Alice’s household and family? Celine is only next door after all. Would she even have the clout to think of that? But what if it is all in Alice’s head? What if it is all paranoia developing from a place of guilt?

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There’s always that slither of doubt in the air and that’s where all of the suspense comes from. There is a lot of shock and regret going around, and therefore minute details, which could easily be seen as misunderstandings or honest mistakes become intense subjects of concern. The dialogue is brutally cutting with sharply chosen words that only intensifies the uncertainty of the situation, and the acting, especially from Baetens, is grounded in reality enough that it stops short of being over the top and becomes spine-chilling.

Aesthetically the movie is impressive too. The lustrous costume design replicates the 1960s look, and the vivacious colours and repetitive architecture of the twin houses adds to the eerie nature of the atmosphere. Their houses are virtually identical, differential only by the notable inversions of staircases and rooms. It creates the sense that nothing is ever private for Alice, not even the comfort and safety of her own home. Pair that with interesting lighting choices and a horrifyingly slow pace to drag out the tension, and we get treated to a good hour and a bit of thrills that harken back to the Hitchcockian era in deliciously unsettling fashion.

Where the film falters is in its ending. There are a few moments of false suspense that I could’ve lived without, but I was otherwise holding my breath for most of the runtime. However, the film decides to provide a definitive answer to what is happening when I think it could’ve been a lot stronger if it had deliberately left it open ended. There’s only so far one can suspend their disbelief, and the ultimate resolution to the film seems ill-chosen.

Still, when the film is focusing on the questionable nature of the plot’s smaller details and whether or not there was intended malice behind it is where it excels the most. Disturbing, dripping with tension, and largely well-crafted, it’s a haunting experience that leaves you guessing at every turn. It’s often said that doubt and suspicion is the beginning of one’s downfall. Whoever first said that has no idea how true that is.

The Feeling of Being Watched – ★★★★☆

The opening scene of The Feeling of Being Watched sets the tone marvellously. Writer/director Assia Boundaoui recalls a time when she was 16, how she was woken up at 3am by two men seemingly tampering with the phone wires outside her house. Upon asking about it, her mother replies, “oh, that’s probably just the FBI”.

My initial reaction was to laugh. What a bizarre, but firm way to catch my attention I thought. Yet when the rest of the film plays out, and proper context is given to that opening scene, my feelings of confusion and humour slowly but surely turned to anxiety and anger.

Boundaoui is an American journalist who grew up in an Islamic community in Bridgeview, Chicago. The community is about as close knit as you can get, yet everybody is in a state of paranoia. For around three decades the neighbours have whispered to each other that they feel as though they are being watched constantly. Vans are mysteriously parked around the neighbourhood and strange men show up asking stranger questions. It seems like more than a mere coincidence.

While investigating, Boundaoui makes an unsettling discovery. During the 1990s, her quiet, friendly neighbourhood was subject to one of the most wide-spread counterterrorism operations pre-9/11, known as “Operation Vulgar Betrayal”, a name which only sounds more fitting the more details the film reveals. Over 10,000 pages on this operation exist, pages which the FBI are now refusing to hand Boundaoui, despite it being within her rights to request such pages.

As Boundaoui says, espionage is disciplinary power through invisible means. But if that power is exploited and manipulated to serve the will of fear and chauvinism, then all it does is demean the workings and success of espionage as a whole.

This documentary, which also serves as a fascinating piece of investigative journalism, is Boundaoui’s attempt to uncover the full extent of the FBI’s surveillance on her community, which seems to be driven on an entirely on the basis of her community’s religion. While her film’s end credits admit that her investigation is still technically ongoing, that matters little in the grand scheme of things. For this is a film about pulling back the curtain and calling out those in power who feed into the hostile mentality towards Muslims, particularly in a world that is growing frighteningly more divisive.

What I really like about this film is not only how well-informed it is – having studied US espionage during my university years I found myself all too familiar with the jargon used and the presentation of FBI reports – but how articulate it is in its aims too. Boundaoui portrays her community as transparently as she can, creating a real sense of benevolent dynamic, from the neighbouring contributors to the humorous, heartfelt chemistry shared by her and her mother. Therefore, when she presents her findings we find ourselves disturbed and tense at the callousness of the FBI and its leaders, not just for their tactics, but for their abuse of power. The treatment they show Boundaoui eventually leads her to suing the entire organisation, where their attempts to deflect and make scapegoats speak volumes. It would be comical if it wasn’t so shocking.

Because of all this, the tension felt throughout the film quickly bubbles to anger. It’s never explicitly said that the FBI’s decisions are influenced by Islamophobia from what I can recall, but with the way Boundaoui presents her case, it’s hard to see it as anything other than prejudice. The FBI is known for their strange operation names, but Vulgar Betrayal feels strangely appropriate. The conduct of the operation is a vulgar betrayal of an entire community who just want to live in peace and get on with their lives. As Boundaoui says, espionage is disciplinary power through invisible means. But if that power is exploited and manipulated to serve the will of fear and chauvinism, then all it does is demean the workings and success of espionage as a whole.

It’s also just well-made as a piece of filmmaking. During moments where the cameras couldn’t be used, stylish animation is used as an alternative. And the creative usage of editing keeps the pacing kinetic and each new facet of information interesting. What it amounts to is a film that can be difficult to watch at times, but remains nonetheless eye-opening. In a time when cowards, hypocrites, and sycophants (looking at you Trump) hold dangerous amounts of power, the rights and values of humanity, whether black or white, Muslim, Christian or Atheist, should be championed and upheld all the more. That is precisely what Boundaoui succeeds in doing with this eloquent display of docu-journalism.

Tell it to the Bees – ★★☆☆☆

Early into the film, Anna Paquin’s character, Dr Jean Markham, tells the young boy Charlie (Gregor Selkirk) that you should tell your secrets to the bees. For you see, bees have their own unique way of communicating with each other, and with us, and therefore are a reliable source to vent to. Secrets are in abundance amongst the characters of Tell it to the Bees, secrets that pave the way to more progressive ideals, ideals I can get behind.

Too bad the movie goes about them in such a melodramatic fashion.

Holliday Grainger plays Lydia, a mill worker and single mother to Charlie in 1952’s rural Scotland. Having been abandoned by a philandering husband, and struggling to pay rent, she has slipped into a monotonous state of depression, much to the worry of her young son. When Dr Markham returns to the village, her and Charlie’s shared interest in bees quickly turns them into friends. When Lydia meets Dr Markham, their initial friendship quickly blossoms into something else – a relationship that would be the scandal of the village if uncovered.

There’s no shortage of things to admire about Tell it to the Bees. Gregor Selkirk is a fine young actor who I reckon has a very bright future ahead of him. He is a very charming presence who carries the material well, and the duo of Paquin and Grainger also makes for suitable chemistry. They all work off each other sturdily and moderately serve the ultimate themes of the project moderately.

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Where the majority of my problems lie is in the screenplay. Annabel Jankel’s direction is focused and mostly concise, but her script is far too on the nose and bare-boned to do justice to its admirable themes and ideas. The dialogue feels very wooden most of the time, and the characters who dictate them feel underdeveloped. This is especially true of the antagonistic characters. Although it succeeds in showcasing how rapidly a mob mentality can grow, particularly in such a tight community, the primary antagonists of the husband and his mother (Emun Elliott and Katie Dickie) are painfully two-dimensional. They feel less like people stuck in a regressive way of thinking and more like caricatures and obstacles within the plot. They starkly contrast with the protagonists, who spend much of the film wallowing in darkly-lit sadness or in saturated brightness of whimsy, because isn’t it all just so beautiful? They may have sad backstories and mentalities to share, but from the way they are crafted, their characters feel like fabrications for the convenience of the plot and central ideas.

It seems hell-bent on leading its audience by the hand, as if anxious that we can’t make out what it’s trying to do. Its themes are to upheld and admired, but when its characters are this flat and its story is this redundant a mixture between mechanical narrative beats and unpleasant scenes of needless cruelty, even for its 1952 setting, all for the sake of drama, they get bogged down by the mediocrities of what’s on screen. It causes many of the dramatic beats to lose the gravity they should have, making these moments sappy at best and, in the case of its climax which includes bees banding together to take somebody down, very hard to take seriously at worst. It’s a case of the components all being present, but being utilised in entirely the wrong ways.

Perhaps it’s simply me being cynical. We critics aren’t perfect after all. But, for one reason or another, this film sadly didn’t click with me. Its heart seems to be in the right place, but it’s too pedestrian and formulaic in its handling of the central story and characters. It’s disheartening to ponder what wonders another draft of this screenplay could have done for the overall product. As it is, it’s decently made enough, but there’s little to distinguish it from many of the other films I’ve seen so far this Glasgow Film Festival.

Tickets on sale for the Glasgow Film Festival at the Glasgow Film Theatre. View the brochure here.

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