You’re written in her book…
By Kevin J. Olson
Basic Instinct is one of those movies that deserve to be rediscovered. That may sound strange for a film that made more than $300 million worldwide upon its release, but there’s a lot more to the film than just the sex, the violence and the controversy that surrounded the film upon its initial release. Like all of Verhoeven’s films — with the exception of maybe Hollow Man — there’s something deeper, something more worthy of deconstruction lurking beneath the film’s familiar template. Verhoeven likes working within genre films so that he can distract one set of viewers with the sex and the ultra-violence that has become synonymous with his name, yet he also likes to use that familiar structure so that he can explicate deeper themes and tropes through his unique lens. Make no mistake: Verhoeven — despite his Dutch masterpiece The 4th Man — does not make art films. Sure, his films have a depth to them that may sneak up on people, but he flaunts his mainstream styling, and, for all intents and purposes, the man is an action filmmaker. However, in 1992, Verhoeven wanted to do something different with Basic Instinct and mine the familiar territory of the Hitchcockian thriller and the character type of the femme fatale.
Joe Eszterhas’ sleazy neo-noir script is perfectly suited for the subversively wry Dutch director. Eszterhas was famous for his ‘80s scripts Flashdance and Jagged Edge (which I really like), and wrote Basic Instinct prompting a bidding war at the time. It was around the late ‘80s when the film’s producers were hoping to get it made with a mainstream actress in the lead. When major stars such as Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathleen Turner, Kim Basinger and Meg Ryan turned down the role, Verhoeven and the producers gave the role to the relatively unknown Sharon Stone (who had a small role in Verhoeven’s own Total Recall). Her performance as Catherine Tramell would go on to define her career and be one of the most iconic and memorable female performances of the ‘90s.
The film’s basic plot structure comes right out of Hitchcock with its twisting narrative and male protagonist who always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and who just can’t seem to avoid trouble. Michael Douglas was perfectly cast as the barely-hanging-on detective Nick Curran. Curran investigates the murder of a rock star who died via multiple stab wounds from an ice pick. One of the suspects is the women who matches a description of the suspect and was the last person to see the rock star alive. Crime author Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) wrote a novel titled Basic Instinct in which a character dies in the exact same way (white scarf stuffed in their mouth and killed by ice pick). Curran learns that she’s writing a new book about a cop and soon finds that she uses him, and others, for her material as dangerous real-life situations play out.
Curran serves as the prototypical noir protagonist who enjoys getting a little dirty and gets a little too drawn into the seedy underworld he’s investigating. I love the way that the film sets up the viewer with Nick’s past about being a little trigger happy and a little coked-up while accidentally shooting some tourists while undercover; it’s a nice bit of foreshadowing for the film’s ending which some feel unnecessarily removed the ambiguity surrounding the identity of the icepick killer; however, I like the little bit of punctuation at the end because it makes that final decision Nick makes have more impact. It leaves the viewer with a little bit of a sour taste in their mouth just like those old, hard-boiled noirs used to do. Also, you can’t tell me that Hitch didn’t have a wry smile on his face when he filmed some of his endings in similar vein that left the viewer in a state of, “what the hell was that?”
One thing that makes the film so memorable — and one of my top five choices whenever I get in a Verhoeven-y mood — is the energy the auteur brings to the film. Verhoeven and his d.p. Jan de Bont (who would later go on to make a name for himself in ‘90s action films with the tremendous Speed), are more than up to the task in making Basic Instinct a beautiful and efficient neo-noir that has the right look and sound; it’s part polished Hitchcock (the style and the music) and part hard-boiled noir (the character types and the language/content). Sure, kinky sex and graphic violence fill the narrative, but many movies like Basic Instinct consist solely of overkill with no sense of vitality or variety (Eszterhas’ own Jade, for example). Quite honestly, there isn’t even that much action in the film, but that energy and style that Verhoeven brings to the dialogue and the characters — driven by Stone’s performance — makes the film feel like wall-to-wall action. Just as he did with the science-fiction subgenre in RoboCop, the Middle Ages action film in Flesh + Blood, the exploitation subgenre in Showgirls, the pro-war propaganda film in Starship Troopers and the WWII drama in Black Book Verhoeven brings unmitigated verve and élan to these overly familiar premises. Even though Basic Instinct doesn't approach the best of Verhoeven’s films, just look at the way he frames Stone in that interrogation scene, the way he shoots bird’s eye as his characters run toward crashing waves on the beach with the overdramatic music in the background, or the fun he wrings from the obligatory car chase.
And maybe that’s the word I’m looking for, “fun.” Verhoeven’s zeal often translates into a fun movie experience where you often find yourself laughing unexpectedly because you know the filmmakers aren’t taking themselves too seriously (RoboCop exemplifies this in its purposeful absurdity and seems Dada-esque in its satirical take on a violent dystopian future). Starship Troopers may be one of the most misunderstood of all of Verhoeven’s works because of its subtle satire — something definitely lacking in Basic Instinct. While I don’t see signs of satirism in Basic Instinct as Verhoeven approaches many of his other genre films, I do think that he’s using the overblown and melodramatic (much like he did to great effect in 2006’s Black Book) to sneak in the things he really wants to say underneath that all-too-familiar veneer of sex and violence. One only needs to look to Eszterhas’ other psychosexual thriller of the ‘90s, the aforementioned Jade, to see that these kinds of films aren’t always filmed with the kind of intensity Verhoeven brings to this script. William Friedkin helmed that Eszterhas script, and produced a complete and utter mess; an ugly film that wasted the talents of its leading actress and lacked any of the drama or Hitchcockian qualities found in Basic Instinct. That’s the impact of Verhoeven.
I think now that people can see Basic Instinct in a light removed from its controversy surrounding its portrayal of homosexual relationships (the film was protested so passionately that the filmmakers had to have extra security on hand during filming) and it being just “that movie where Sharon Stone shows Michael Douglas and Newman from Seinfeld her crotch,” they’ll see one of the best modern examples of the femme fatale archetype. Catherine is a character type that Verhoeven has studied before (Christine from The 4th Man kind of acts as a precursor to Basic Instinct), and it’s one of the most memorable characters of any of his films. Stone plays Catherine with such an icy confidence — she’s the perfect femme fatale: she’s confident sexually and ambiguously dangerous throughout the film’s mystery so that you know with certainty she’s the killer…but then again, you’re not really sure. It’s a fine balancing act by Stone who, after this film, wouldn’t really have another performance this juicy (although I thought she was pretty good in Scorsese’s Casino). I love the way in which she completely manipulates Douglas’ character throughout the entire film. Those who think that Stone’s performance, and her character, functions solely as a sex-crazed character couldn’t be more wrong. Sex may indeed be the most valuable weapon in Catherine’s arsenal, and she knows that she must use it in order to maneuver Nick, but it’s not because she’s extremely beautiful, it’s because Verhoeven understands that for the traditional male, there’s nothing scarier than a blatantly promiscuous woman, confident about sex and her sexual prowess. The femme fatale archetype hinges on flipping the preconceived notions about power and sex, and, often, how those two usually connect. No better modern femme fatale has been put on celluloid than Sharon Stone’s portrayal of Catherine Tramell (Kathleen Turner’s Matty Walker from Body Heat ranks up there, too).
Just look at the film’s most famous (or infamous) scene. Catherine being interrogated by a group of male police officers and people from the office of the district attorney — a kind of verbal gangbang as Verhoeven’s camera goes in and out of focus on the men throwing their rapid-fire questions at her. Catherine maintains total control of the situation, despite the bravado and machismo of the cops tuned up for full effect. Of course, the scene lives in infamy for Stone flashing her panty-less crotch at the officers as she crosses her legs. The scene's importance though stems from Catherine letting these people understand that not only does she feel comfortable showing them that she doesn’t wear underwear, but also that she can wield her control over the room by messing with their minds as well by flipping roles and interrogating Nick about his attempt to quit smoking (which, just like all of his other attempts to stunt his vices, go by the wayside by film’s end). This brings those in the room to wonder if the two know each other from a previous encounter, and it shows that Catherine, on the surface, can manipulate men with her sexuality, but she’s just as keen to mess with their heads. In other words: she’ll fuck you, but she’ll fuck your mind, too, and each will be equally as fun for her. The way Stone plays that scene proves crucial to its success — she doesn’t allow Catherine to be an object, rare in movies such as this and Hollywood in general, yet she allows Catherine’s sexuality to take control of the room as she flippantly disregards the no smoking rule — she performs it masterfully, and it’s a shame that more remember the scene for her uncrossing her legs than her acting and Verhoeven's underlying commentary that follows.
It’s interesting to compare Basic Instinct and the character of Catherine with another Michael Douglas film of the ‘90s, Disclosure. In that film, Demi Moore attempts to seduce Michael Douglas and then wrongfully accuse him of sexual harassment in order to ruin his life. It’s all very tame and banal because you don't believe Moore as a femme fatale. She lacks the assurance as an actress that Stone gives Catherine, and because of that, we don’t buy Douglas’ plight; the whole thing just feels lifeless, as if it’s going through the motions. Basic Instinct, on the other hand, is the opposite. Not because Douglas’ character has more definition than in Disclosure, but because we buy why Nick would follow Catherine down into that world of rough sex and violence. Moore brings the sex and tries to play scary…attempts to equal what a male would do in that performance. Stone’s performance, though, does the opposite. As I mentioned earlier, sex happens to be the best weapon in Catherine’s arsenal, and that makes her scary because she cannot be contained, controlled or manipulated like most women in thrillers such as these. Disclosure tries to invert this trope as Basic Instinct does but it comes off so artificially because the movie takes itself too seriously.
What I love about Catherine is that she lacks anything subversive about her character; she’s as blatant an archetype for a femme fatale as you’ll get. From the minute Douglas and his partner meet her, they understand they’re dealing with a woman who controls everything. The film's script makes her sexy and smart, sure, but that’s not the scariest thing about Catherine as a femme fatale — that would be her awareness of her ability to control others. She knows she can control Nick with her sexuality, and more importantly, she knows she can manipulate Nick because he’s willing to let her. Nick can't help himself around her, yet he feels as if he always controls his faculties. When he has a bit of rough sex with his on-again-off-again girlfriend (Jeanne Tripplehorn), it’s eerie and offsetting because it seems as if Catherine’s influence already has penetrated Nick’s daily life; he has succumbed to her power. It isn’t long after this scene that Nick begins his obsession with Catherine. The power games between the male and female leads — those kinds of gender war-type films popular in ‘90s dramas — lacked teeth in Disclosure; however, with Basic Instinct, thanks to Verhoeven’s direction and Stone’s performance, there’s an electricity to it that keeps the film’s over-the-top and headlong momentum rolling.
Paul Verhoeven could be as misunderstood an auteur in mainstream Hollywood system as exists. I admire the fact that Verhoeven goes all-in regarding his films; he just lays it all out there — realism be damned. He reminds me of my favorite Italian horror filmmakers that prove that style can be substance. I mean, sure, the film contains awkward moments of haughty aesthetic, but I like that about Verhoeven. He reminds me of Ken Russell a little bit in that regard: here’s a filmmaker who, if you’re willing to go along for the ride, does have something to say in his films; it’s there lurking beneath the surface of all of that ultra-violence and gratuitous sex and nudity. Twenty years later, people can take a fresh look at Basic Instinct as a film without all the outside distractions. Here’s a film where Verhoeven inverts the experience of the typical theatergoing male. The sex can't be labeled pornographic by any means (a male-dominated exercise, no doubt), but it’s explicit in its portrayal of sex, which I think scares some people more (and probably explains why the idiots in the MPAA initially gave the film an NC-17) in the audience it’s a film where the sex is primarily controlled, orchestrated and because the female lead dominates it. I think that’s Verhoeven being deliciously subversive, and I really admire that about Basic Instinct.
In Roger Ebert’s 1992 review, he wrote, "The film is like a crossword puzzle. It keeps your interest until you solve it, by the ending. Then it's just a worthless scrap with the spaces filled in." Narratively speaking, the same could be said for a number of Hitchcock films; It’s the style that keeps us coming back to those, and it’s the style, as well as the subtext, that keeps me coming back to Verhoeven’s film. I think it’s incredibly shortsighted of Ebert to see the film in this light considering it’s so heavily indebted to Hitchcock, whose films, for the most part, played exactly as he describes above. Verhoeven always has had an uncanny knack for capturing the particular milieu of whatever genre he’s tackling. Even though he’s over-the-top, he never comes right out and admits his purpose. Perhaps that’s why so many people have trouble with him: he’s so good at it that you think what you’re getting is just another genre film competently crafted and nothing more. I think maybe that’s why people have a hard time looking beyond the general silliness of something such as Starship Troopers or the sex and violence in Basic Instinct as films that are saying something beyond their gruff narratives and ultra-violent surfaces. I also think that the knock on Basic Instinct — and Verhoeven in general — derives from over-the-top tendencies that allow the film to get lost by the end. It results in a well-made, but not great, experience. For me, I love the way Verhoeven goes storming into his narratives, and Basic Instinct (even though it’s “lesser” Verhoeven), 20 years later, still stands as one of his most loopy, over-the-top and slyly fun rides.