You might remember the term in medias res from high school English class. It refers to a work that starts “in the middle of things.” And Elle, director Paul Verhoeven's (Basic Instinct, Showgirls) latest psychological thriller, certainly starts in the middle of things … in the middle of a rape. It's brutal and shocking and, unsurprisingly, sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) is a 50-year-old businesswoman. Along with her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), she founded a successful video game company, and she has no issues holding her ground against her younger, male employees. Some may even resent her unflinching authority, but Michèle's not one to be terribly concerned with everyone else's opinion. And yet it is Michèle, in a royal blue dress, that is grasping at her attacker's face in the movie's opening scene. Then, once the audience is perfectly horrified, Michèle simply sits up, cleans herself up, and stoically orders sushi. She seems way less traumatized than we are.

In a movie that's an exploration of male/female power dynamics, it's interesting that the script (based on a novel by Philippe Djian), submits such a strong woman to rape. As if to prove everyone deals with trauma in her own way, Michèle avoids reporting the crime to the police and instead enlists her sole friend at work, Kevin (Arthur Mazet), to hack the company computers. She's going to find this asshole.

Before we label this film as a black-and-white revenge movie, we must give more credit to David Birke's script, Paul Verhoeven's directing, and, especially, Isabelle Huppert's acting. Huppert is somehow both magnetic and indiscernible — you can't look away, but, you also can't decide what is going on inside her head. At times she's an unbreakable power woman (she tells her friends about the rape over dinner and has moved on before the wine is even served), but at other times you have to wonder if this woman is seriously traumatized (as a child, her father went on a killing spree, and enlisted her help to hide the bodies). But Huppert's Michèle has a sturdiness to her, so, more often than not, she earns the benefit of the doubt.

It's because Huppert is such a strong lead that a film so centered on a sexual transgression works. Although there's a man in the director's chair and another pair of men penning the script, Elle feels like a treatise on 21st-century feminist views on rape. Often when we want to change minds, whether on race relations or same-sex marriage, the ACLU has to go find a near flawless person to represent the case. But Michèle is not perfect. Her video game company creates sexualized content that verges on fantasy tentacle rape. She's sleeping with her ex-husband and her best friend's husband at the same time. And guess what? She still doesn't deserve to be raped. The only modern victim-blaming cliché the film doesn't set up is that Michèle is always dressed sophisticated and polished, so in at least one way, she's not “asking for it.” But the real envelope-pusher the film presents is this: Can a woman that's been violated once again reclaim power? Can consent be turned on and off in-between scenes?

The whodunit aspect of the film plays second fiddle to these larger questions. Like Verhoeven's other films, Elle is unabashedly provocative. It treads a really fine line between fucked up and fucking beautiful. But in the adept hands of Verhoeven and Huppert, in the power struggle between the screen and the viewer, the twisted world of Elle just might end up on top.