Friday, 14 January 2022

Basic Instinct (1992)

Basic Instinct, Paul Verhoeven’s 1992 neo-noir neo-Hitchcockian erotic thriller scripted by Joe Eszterhas, aroused controversy even before filming began. Feminists and gay activists were outraged, and of course didn’t need to see the movie in order to decide that they violently disapproved of it. They weren’t the only ones to misunderstand the film’s intentions and having his films misunderstood was something that has characterised Verhoeven’s career. Three years later Verhoeven and Eszterhas would team up again for the equally misunderstood Showgirls.

Basic Instinct starts with a man and a woman having sex, sex that culminates in gruesome murder. The victim was an ex-rock star who had transformed himself into a pillar of the community, with a cozy (and presumably corrupt) relationship with the mayor.

The obvious place for the police to start the investigation is with the victim’s girlfriend Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone). When they interview her Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and his partner immediately realise that dealing with Catherine isn’t going to be easy. She doesn’t play by their rules.

The evidence against Catherine is practically non-existent but they call her in for further questioning anyway, which leads us That Scene, one of the most notorious scenes in cinema history.

We discover that Nick has a lot of problems. He’s undergoing counselling by Dr Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn). It seems he has a habit of shooting people, including (unfortunately) a couple of innocent bystanders. He shot a couple of tourists and was almost certainly coked to the eyeballs at the time. He was cleared of that killing by Internal Affairs but they conveniently forgot to do a drug test at the time. He now claims that he’s given up cocaine, booze and smoking and he’s doing just fine but he is clearly a seething cauldron of suppressed rage that could blow at any moment. Beth gives him a clean bill of health, possibly because they had an affair and she’s still in love with him. There’s not a single authority figure in this movie who behaves ethically.

Nick discovers that quite a few people connected with Catherine have died. He also knows that she’s having a lesbian relationship with Roxy (Leilani Sarelle). Catherine has a complicated life.

There’s also the matter of her book. A year before the murder of the ex-rock star Catherine had written a novel about a murder which occurred in precisely the same way. Which could mean she is guilty. Or it could mean someone has read the book and is using it to frame her. The book serves as a kind of alibi - no jury is ever going to believe that anyone would be dumb enough to describe a murder in detail in a book and then commit the murder. The book means that the chances of convicting Catherine of the murder are practically nil. Of course it could be a double-bluff - Catherine could have done the killing knowing that the book would serve as an aibi.

Nick thinks Catherine is guilty. He also desperately wants to have sex with her. And Catherine is thoroughly enjoying herself playing with him.

Catherine is now writing another book, about a detective who falls for the wrong girl and dies for it. Is this the fate in store for Nick?

Another murder, this time a shooting which seems to be connected, adds further complications.

The plot would have provided the basis for a very good erotic thriller and this movie does indeed work very well on that level. There is however a whole lot more going on here.

There’s an obvious clash between the world of reason, logic, order and conventional morality and the chaotic world of passion, emotion and lust. The world of the basic instinct from which the movie gets its title, the sex instinct. The cops, the authority figures and most of the male characters represent the world of reason. Catherine represents the world of passion and sex. Nick is caught between the two, because when that basic instinct kicks in men are drawn into the world of women where passion is more important than reason. So there’s a kind of war between the sexes theme but it’s more complicated than that because men and women, no matter how much they may come into conflict, are inexorably attracted to each other.

And perhaps it’s not so much the two worlds of men and women, but the two worlds of those who fear the power of sex and try to control it and those who embrace it. Catherine accepts her sexual urges. She feels no guilt about sex. When she wants sexual pleasure she takes it. She represents what the forces of order fear most - a woman who ignores the rules that society has constructed in order to control sex. But she’s not quite the traditional vamp. When she uses men for sex she makes it clear to them what she’s doing. When she plays elaborate psycho-sexual games with Nick she makes sure he knows she’s playing those games. If he chooses to keep playing that’s up to him.

It’s a movie that upset a lot of feminists but in fact it’s not in any way an anti-woman movie. It’s just brutally realistic about sex. It might be a politically incorrect movie but it’s basically pro-woman and pro-sex. Sex is dangerous but it’s dangerous for everybody and if it wasn’t dangerous it wouldn’t excite us so much. Unlike so many movies that deal with sex this movie doesn’t tell us that sex is bad and will destroy us. What will destroy us is a failure to accept the real nature of our sexual urges.

There are countless Hitchcock references (Verhoeven is a major admirer of Hitchcock). Catherine is clearly meant to remind us of Kim Novak in Vertigo. There are lots of nods to Vertigo, but the voyeurism which is such a major part of Basic Instinct clearly comes from Rear Window. The scene in which Nick watches Catherine undressing in front of the window of her beach house is a very obvious Rear Window reference. It’s one of two scenes in which Nick observes her undressing. In both cases Catherine not only knows she’s being watched but enjoys it. So, in contrast to Rear Window, in this movie the woman being watched is an active rather than a passive participant. In fact, assuming that Catherine is in fact inviting Nick to watch her, the woman is the active participant. Basic Instinct does constantly challenge our ideas about which partner is the dominant partner.

Catherine is clearly the femme fatale although as the movie progresses we find there may be three femmes fatales, any one of whom could be the killer.

Nick is the noir protagonist and he’s a very very flawed protagonist. The meeting between Nick and Catherine is a meeting between a dangerous man and a dangerous woman.

I’ve never liked Michael Douglas but I have to admit he’s superb in this movie. Sharon Stone is extraordinary. She was born to play Catherine Tramell.

Thematically there’s a lot of film noir in this movie but visually it’s one Hitchcock reference after another. Not just references to particular Hitchcock scenes but to Hitchcock’s entire visual style and approach to movie-making. Verhoeven and Brian de Palma (especially in Body Double) may be the only directors who have been able to take so much inspiration from Hitchcock without ever seeming like mere copyists. Basic Instinct is truly an example of what art is all about - taking inspiration from another artist to create something genuinely new.

I also love the artificiality of Basic Instinct. This is not the real world. This is an imaginary hyper-real world with its own rules and its own logic. It doesn’t even look like the real world. It looks much better than the real world. This is the world of movies. This is a world in which interrogation rooms in police stations are created by interior designers in such a way as to make female suspects look as beautiful and alluring as possible.

The Australian Blu-Ray release (which is absurdly cheap) comes loaded with extras including two audio commentaries. One is by Camille Paglia (a huge fan of the movie) who has lots to say about the femme fatale, the other features Verhoeven and the movie’s cinematographer. Fans of the movie will find both commentaries worthwhile.

Basic Instinct is a movie that could not possibly be made today. It’s too grown-up, too intelligent, too provocative, too unsettling, too sexy, too honest. All things that Hollywood no longer wants to know about.

Basic Instinct is one of the last great Hollywood movies, and it is a truly great movie. Very highly recommended.

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