The voting was so damn close between #1 and #2 in the poll I conducted a couple weeks ago to see what blockbuster movie I should see to fill in my education, that I decided to go ahead and review the runner-up. The fact that I've been meaning to see the film for months helped make this decision easier.
Basic Instinct when it was new was big enough that even I, as a ten-year-old, had some sense of it: gay activists protesting, Sharon Stone declaiming the film's director as having photographed her genitalia without permission, Joe Eszterhas, the screenwriter, receiving an unfathomable payday - and that last bit, I think, is actually where it all started. Not because most Americans give a shit about screenwriters' paydays, though even by 2012 standards, Eszterhas brought home a whole lot of money. No, I think that the media frenzy surrounded the writer made it seem like he was the most important part of the project, and that the film should thus be judged according to his take on it - and it is absolutely not possible to deny that, especially in 1992, Eszterhas was a grubby, miserable little misogynist whose worldview was ordered less as a mother/whore dynamic than a whore/lesbian whore one.
Anyway, in 1992, Americans did not give a shit about European movies - not the kind of Americans who made Basic Instinct a massive hit by the standards of R-rated erotic thrillers, anyway (top 10 of the year, over $200 million in 2012 dollars) - so nobody was going to stop and think about what Paul Verhoeven had to say about all of this. Verhoeven, in the States in those days, was known (if at all) for RoboCop, an absolutely tremendous satire that is easy to mistake for a simple, violent action movie (the phrase "an absolutely tremendous satire that is easy to mistake &c" is a handy one to keep in hand when discussing Verhoeven's American period), and Total Recall, which kind of is a simple, violent action movie, although that's underneath a considerable layer of "how can you tell if something onscreen is 'real'?" genre experimentation.
Basic Instinct is the most European of the director's U.S. pictures - in fact, it feels awfully like a re-working of the themes of his 1983 thriller The Fourth Man, only re-aligned to specifically screw with American viewers - and while it is surely not his best work, it feels a hell of a lot more like the films that Verhoeven made without Eszterhas than the films that Eszterhas made without Verhoeven; though it is perhaps not surprising that it feels most of all like a practice run for their next collaboration, the notorious 1995 flop Showgirls, an absolutely tremendous satire that is, um, like I said.
But for now, let's stay in 1992. And here, we find that the filmmakers are straight-up, out-and-out dicking around with their viewers, by opening with a particularly enthusiastic sex scene: a blonde woman whose face we don't see is feverishly humping a man whose identity doesn't matter, because he's not going to be around for much longer. And I say that this is dicking around with the viewer, because the thing is, we all know that Basic Instinct is a dirty movie. That's what makes it so trashy and exciting and illicit, right? Because one thing as true in 1992 as it is today, sex in American cinema is much likelier to be implied than to be demonstrated.
So what? So the sex film opens with a sex scene - and that's the trick. There's an old rule that goes something like, "no pornographic film ever opens on two characters screwing", and between this, and the fact that Americans, however much we like to talk about sex and sexualise everything and sex with our sexing sex sexytimes, are a nation very queasy and awkward about sex. Starting off with a sex scene? Particularly a vigourous and explicit one like this? That's not trying to titillate the viewer. That's throwing titillation right back in the viewer's face, in a snotty, "you wanted to see it, well here it is, and why don't you choke on it?" way, aided immeasurably by Jerry Goldsmith's fantastically nervous score (he received a deserved, and uncharacteristically bold, Oscar nomination)
And then, of course, the blonde woman stabs the holy fuck out of the guy with an ice pick (it's one of the scenes that had to be shaved down a bit for an R-rating). Just to make sure we've had our mental link between sex and eroticism severely tempered for the rest of the movie.
I will give you the short version: the signs all point to Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone, in her starmaking role), a crime novelist and psychologist who wrote about this exact scenario down to the minutest detail in her first book. San Francisco homicide detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) certainly thinks its her, though he can't convince the rest of the his department that he's right. And Catherine doesn't even really try very hard to protest her innocence; in what is bar none the film's most famous scene, she sits coolly by as a roomful of male cops interrogate her, as she laconically responds to their questions by doing everything on Earth but say, "How much more obvious could it possibly be that I'm the killer? Are you even kidding?" - the important part of this scene, despite what the media narrative would have you believe, is not that you get to see Stone's pubes, by the way; it's that Catherine is smarter than the rest of the room combined, and she's absolutely aware that she can get away, literally, with confessing to murder because she puts on a little show for the men.
Anyway, since Nick is the closest thing to certain that Catherine is a murderer who has stabbed at least two men in her life to death, he starts sleeping with her, because there is no such thing as healthy sex in a Verhoeven film. It's one of the chief issues with European art films from the '70s onward, really: they're so much more open about depicting sexual acts than American films are, but by God, they are never emotionally healthy. Male directors, female directors, straight, gay, incestous, underage; it doesn't matter. If you are a naked person in a European movie, you are experiencing either profound depression or some kind of psychotic break that can only be addressed by angrily fucking someone in the most damaging way possible for both of you. End the digression.
There's honestly not much plot, just "a detective with loads of personal baggage has kinky murdersex, and starts to get in way over his head. I suspect that at least part of what the filmmakers are gunning for is simply generic commentary (something Verhoeven does in nearly all of his films): it's a classic film noir situation, only since 1992 is not the 1950s, Basic Instinct can present in savage, exacting detail what an actual film noir had to dance about implying. In this regard, the film is a perfect bookend to Body Heat, which doesn't even try to hide the fact that it's nothing but Double Indemnity with Kathleen Turner's tits on display, only where Body Heat was still trying very much to be erotic (and succeeding), Basic Instinct is too cerebral and curdled to really land on that level, and it's not aiming to, I don't think. There are, in essence, four "featured" sex scenes: the first ends with a murder, the second is a rape (and not one of those '70s-style "it's rape but we still expect you to be turned on" scenes, even though the victim later seems not to care very much), the third is too filled with the subtext that Catherine might kill Nick at any second for us to relax into it.
Film noir itself is, of course, one of the most cynical, nasty, nihilsitic of all film genres; a good fit, then, for Eszterhas's bilious attitude towards nearly everything decent and Verhoeven's interest in control and manipulation. I cannot say that Basic Instinct is trying to upend this genre or merely upgrade; but certainly, Verhoeven has enough fun with the visual tropes of noir - if nothing else, the irony-laden way he uses actresses' hair color is proof that he knows what he's on about - that I think he's not taking any of this very seriously. The writer, who can say? He was a right bastard.
But genre games aren't really the main thrust of the movie; like Showgirls after it, but to a much less operatic extent, Basic Instinct is a satiric attack on America's sexual problem (and like Showgirls, Verhoeven gets to that point by not apparently letting any of his collaborators in on the joke; I kept thinking that Douglas had an inkling, but no, I really do believe he's being that straitlaced with all sincerity), "satire" in this case not having much of anything to do with humor, though there's a certain absurdity to the way the plot begins piling up in the third act. What we have, though, is a male lead who is deathly convinced of his own sexual potency failing to realise to an almost indescribable degree how much he is not in control of his sexual partner. And Douglas is the perfect, and indeed the only possible casting choice: he is the early-'90s most pristine example of smug, entitled middle-aged masculinty, and in virtually every role he ever played, one has the sensation that it would just take a tiny push to turn him into an unbearable, preening boob; Verhoeve gives that push. I, myself, suspected it for a long while, but the tell came during a clubbing scene, when Nick follows Catherine to a trendy nightspot where all the young and sexually aggressive play, and Verhoeven and cinematographer Jan de Bont - I always forget that Jan de Bont was a pretty damn good cinematographer before he started making crappy action films - pay an abnormal amount of attention to the creases in Douglas's face, just making the poor bastard look so old and out of place and pathetic; there aren't many places where Verhoeven tips his hand like that, but it's incredibly hard, for me at least, to take Nick seriously after that moment, or to assume that I'm being asked to.
Nick, then, represents the part of the American psyche that wants to be so very sophisticated and experienced about sex, but can't get over its ancestral Puritanism; Catherine represents... fuck, I don't know. To the activists picketing the movie, she was Eszterhas's slimy insistence that all women are skeevy bisexual whore-bitches who use their cunts to destroy decent men; to Eszterhas, I imagine she was much the same. But I can't bring myself to accuse Catherine of being a slam against bisexuality or femininity or anything. I'm almost tempted to say that she's not even a bisexual woman, since that would require her to have a gender, and I don't think that holds. She's an untrammeled (haha, I just got it) sexual id; because of Eszterhas' worldview this means she has to be a female, and because of Verhoeven's this means she has to be psychotic, and from there we get Stone's magnificently grotesque, self-indulgent performance of the character as a chessmaster who fucks and kills and manipulates less because she has an itch to scratch than because she's just too damn smart, and knows too much about human behavior to waste her time not destroying the lives of everyone she touches. She's an outrageously wonderful expression of pure melodramatic evil; I like to think that Christopher Marlowe would have been delighted to tell her story, if only social mores didn't get in the way.
I am aware that I have not, perhaps, just described a good movie; in fact, I think I have just described an outrageously, effervescently bad one. It is, however, a movie that I sort of adored for every second of its running time; among Verhoeven's U.S. films, RoboCop is unambiguously better, and so, probably, is Total Recall, and I have not seen Starship Troopers since the 1990s, and had better not offer an opinion on it. What none of those films have, however, is the ecstasy of Basic Instinct, the madness and hurricane force of just watching crazy for two hours. And even through all this, there remains that calm center of nasty, brilliant social insight: the director knows that we want out sexual titillation to be illicit and naughty, and he turns that against us by showing us a protagonist who wants those exact same things and is made a complete fool and simpleton for it, reducing us and the character and the actors and the screenwriters into one pathetic whole, all the people complicit in this prudish, slutty idea of sex that Basic Instinct pretends that it's selling, when it's actually making fun of us for thinking that this is what "mature" sexuality looks like. We are all Nick Currans, wanting to peek at Catherine's vagina and titter about it afterwards, and she views us with no more contempt for it than we deserve. Ask not for whom the ice pick stabs; it stabs for thee.