2019 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: People have long claimed that women prefer bad boys. Whether this is true or not, this widespread belief has formed the basis for many of the most popular films in history. With her daring directorial debut “Instinct,” Halina Reijn attempts to explore this phenomenon through the eyes of a trained psychologist. The result is a film that is at once challenging, frustrating, perplexing, and thoroughly fascinating.

The psychologist is a woman named Nicoline (Carice van Houten) who works at a men’s prison. Her latest patient is Idris (Marwan Kenzari), a man with a history of violent sexual assault. Idris is scheduled to be released, but Nicoline isn’t convinced he is rehabilitated. In her professional opinion, he still lacks empathy and demonstrates manipulative behavior. As Nicoline becomes better acquainted with Idris, she begins to wonder if she is being manipulated herself. Against her better judgment, she becomes completely infatuated with him, prompting a dangerous entanglement that seems destined to end in disaster.

Directed with impressive confidence by Halina Reijn, “Instinct” explores human behavior with disturbing results. While other filmmakers would avoid its taboo premise, Reijn leans into the provocative nature of Esther Gerritsen‘s screenplay with a strong female gaze. Nicoline is presented as a perceptive and intelligent woman who is excellent at her job and fully capable of making rational decisions. Meanwhile, Kenzari portrays Idris with a beguiling charm and sex appeal.

As the film’s title suggests, however, our human instincts and urges often suppress rational thought. Gradually, her unpredictable actions reveal these opposing forces in the human mind. But Reijn tiptoes around the inevitable, delaying the erotic gratification to almost unbearable effect. Where the simmering chemistry between Carice van Houten and Merwan Kenzari promises fireworks, Reijn instead focuses much of the plot on mundane detours.

This excruciating refusal to give in to lurid melodrama effectively makes audiences feel complicit in Nicoline’s indiscretions. Throughout the film, Nicoline remains a fascinating enigma, observing the world from afar. As this slow burn builds to a scorching climax, Carice van Houten’s tour de force portrayal brings out the complex feelings of shame, pleasure, anger, and sadness.

“Instinct” never entirely follows the path you’d expect it to go. But its final destination delivers provocative food for thought. It is often said that sex is about power. This dangerously sexy cat-and-mouse game proves that, with a surprisingly dynamic power struggle that will keep you thinking after the credits roll.

“Instinct” is the Dutch submission for the 2019 Oscar for Best International Feature Film.

GRADE: (★★★)