«Shame isn’t a strong enough emotion to stop us doing anything at all,» says Isabelle Huppert’s French video game mogul Michèle to her best friend late in Elle, and that sentiment certainly pertains to every one of the twisted characters found in Robocop and Basic Instinct auteur Paul Verhoeven’s stirring examination of intersecting passions. Beginning with Michèle’s rape by a masked intruder, his story proceeds to confound expectations at every knotty turn, eschewing for long stretches any resemblance to a revenge fantasy as it investigates Michèle’s relationship with numerous relatives and acquaintances—mostly male—who are, in some form or another, sexually intertwined with her. That Michèle has a deep dark daddy issue only further mires the material in deranged and deviant (semi-masochistic) desire, although Verhoeven’s composed and chilly direction proves as adept at eliciting laughs as it is at generating suspense.
Even after its rapist «villain» has been identified, it proves to be an exhilaratingly mysterious thriller-by-way-of-character-study about power, eroticism and need—a one-of-a-kind work energized by a lead Huppert turn of such rich psychological complexity (and contradictions!), it leaves just about every other 2016 performance in its wake.