‘Instinct’s’ Halina Reijn On the Directing Advice Paul Verhoeven Gave Her

Dutch filmmaker also tells TheWrap how she made sex scenes feel safe for her actors and discusses how the film has been received

When Dutch filmmaker Halina Reijn transitioned from acting to directing, Paul Verhoeven (no relation to this article’s author) gave her one piece of advice that helped her when she started on her film “Instinct,” starring Carice van Houten.

“The thing that Paul Verhoeven said to me when I was working with him as an actor is, ‘You can only direct if you have an urgent question, and you have to have enough energy because you’re so serious about this question to go through the process of moving the whole movie,’” Reijn, who starred in Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” said at TheWrap’s screening of the film at The Landmark in Los Angeles. “When I saw this particular news item, my question was, how is it possible that this woman who is highly trained to know exactly what the dangers are, what are the manipulations of these psychopaths, how can she fall for him, knowing it’s completely bad and wrong? I don’t have any answers, I just have questions.”

“Instinct” is a story about a psychiatrist names Nicoline (van Houten) who falls in love with one of her patients, Idris (played by Marwan Kenzari), a convicted serial rapist. Reijn says it’s a story about “toxic love” and “sexuality,” and it stemmed from a news program she saw on TV that inspired her to dig deeper into the psychology of therapist-patient relationships.

“For me, it was just my own fascination with exploring female identity in all its layers and not just as a hero,” she explained. “And also the fact that we live in a male-driven society, you know, whether you like it or not, that’s just the case… I will speak for myself, I am very confused as a woman because I have all these different layers and that is what I wanted to show in this film. Because I think that the purpose of art… is to look at the gray areas and not so much to say, these are the good guys, these are the bad guys, that is good, that is evil, but to dare to go into all the areas you’re so ashamed of and we don’t want to talk about and bring that a little bit to the light because then we feel less alone.”

Reijn knew that she was taking on a complex story that might garner some backlash, especially in the midst of the #MeToo movement. But, to her surprise, she’s received mostly warm responses, except from a few male journalists.

“At the press conference in Locarno, I got a question from an Eastern European journalist who asked me, ‘why do you make a tribute to rape’ or stuff like that,” Reijn said. “Or somebody in London, a guy, was very angry, but then the whole audience sort of took my side, which I think of course [is because] this movie provokes discussion, and that’s okay.”

Another reason Reijn decided to bring this story to the big screen is because her upbringing taught her how to have boundaries and when to cross them — a big theme in the movie. Throughout the film, van Houten’s character leaves her patient behind bars at the end of the day, but that threshold is crossed when he visits her apartment. Of course, the initial barrier is crossed when they begin a relationship at all.

Reijn explained that she grew up in a commune in Holland where she lived a very free, very boundary-less life, which has led to her acting work in theater be “free” and “shameless.”

“I have an obsession with boundaries,” she said, adding that she would never be forced to do anything, including going to school. Instead, they made their own decisions. “And of course, it’s very paradise-like, but at the same time, it’s unsafe, because if there are no boundaries, if there’s only love, that also becomes like a threat.”

As mentioned above, Idris, due to being on the verge of parole, gets to leave the prison for a few hours, unaccompanied, and finds himself on the doorstep of Nicoline, who is surprised to see him. Although they’re already far into their intimate relationship at this point, one can see Nicoline is terrified, because that boundary of safety had been crossed. After marking his territory in her apartment, he violently rapes her. Reijn explained that she had very specific instructions on how to go about filming this very intimate scene.

“I was just very clear to what I wanted because that is how I like it if I’m an actress, you know, just very clear choreography,” she explained. “I said from the beginning, I don’t want to see any nipples or pubic hair of women, only men. I want to objectify men in this movie. I’ve been objectified for 20 years on stage, so those were my dogmas from the beginning and I asked Marwan about that, but he was totally okay with that. And he really liked that change, because these ways of looking at women are totally conditioned.”

But just because she had a clear idea of how to execute the sex scene, especially to make the actors feel safe, she dreaded that specific day of shooting in her 23-day production schedule.

“I have to be honest with you that I really had a stone in my belly for years knowing that that day would come,” Reijn said. “Of course, it is sort of the core of the film because it takes almost 20 minutes from the moment he rings the doorbell… We also had to be very careful that that scene would not become arousing, you know, not for them as actors, but I mean for the public because, of course, they have chemistry. But for me, when the rape actually happens, it’s nothing… It’s just horrible and nightmarish and weird. For him, it is not about the rape — it’s about the whole power dynamic. And so when he walks into the apartment, I just told him, you are like an animal: you go everywhere, you stand in the shower, your whole territory needs to be marked.”

“Instinct” premiered at the Locarno Film Festival in August and has since done the festival circuit. It is a Best International Feature Film contender at this year’s Oscars.

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