Sunday, March 1, 2009
Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct is a typically complex and ambiguous film from a director whose erotically charged work, at its best, explores and prods at the assumptions about sex, gender, violence and power that underlie various Hollywood genres, even as, on its surface, the film fulfills those genre conventions in every way. It's a delicate balancing act, and it opens Verhoeven's films up to multiple contradictory readings. Is he a skillful provocateur, looking to push buttons and provoke uncomfortable feelings in his audience? Is he probing for something deeper, a treatise on sexual power games and the ways they're presented in popular cinema? Or is he simply a purveyor of exploitative but well-crafted sleaze, reveling in the dirty fun of the trashy stories he's telling? Most likely, of course, it's a little bit of all three, and it's precisely this combination of high-brow deconstruction and low-brow junk cinema that makes Verhoeven such an interesting and slippery filmmaker. He is continually peeking beneath the surface of his films, letting all the interesting subtexts and sociopolitical commentary of the material bubble up, but he never lets his forays into the cinematic subconscious undermine the surface thrills he delivers.
This is certainly true of Basic Instinct, a sexual thriller that engages with received ideas about sexually aggressive women, the femme fatale archetype, and the power games and manipulation involved in male/female relationships. Catherine (Sharon Stone) is perhaps the ultimate femme fatale, and Verhoeven never flinches away from exactly what makes her so troubling to the men she encounters: her fearless sexual promiscuity, her calm demeanor and coolness about ideas like love and romance, the openly manipulative way she uses her sexuality. She's not just sexy and scary in equal measure; she's scary because she's sexy, and vice versa. She's a blatant confrontation to masculine ideas about what women are supposed to be like, and she flaunts this confrontational persona, which is both seductive and intimidating to men. And especially to the disgraced cop Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), who is recovering from the latest in a line of "accidental" shootings on the job. While undercover, he killed a pair of tourists, and seems to have barely made it through the resultant inquiries with his badge intact. This makes him especially vulnerable to the manipulations of Catherine, who he begins investigating after her club owner boyfriend shows up dead, riddled with bloody holes from an ice pick.
Catherine, of course, is the perfect suspect for the murder: she's got a shady past, shadier associates, has a fondness for ice picks, and, as a writer, has even written a trashy novel in which a former rock star is killed by his girlfriend in exactly the same way as her own lover. But Catherine is too clever, and neatly avoids the murder rap even as she begins sucking Nick into her clutches, researching his past and setting him up as the "inspiration" for her next novel. The bodies start piling up, but Nick is soon more of a suspect than Catherine, and even knowing that she's probably responsible for it all, he can't help being seduced by her. Verhoeven makes Catherine an iconic icy blonde, cool and deadly and always able to make things fall exactly her way. Stone's performance here is legendary for a reason, not just because she's great at projecting Catherine's quietly threatening sexual energy, but because she's embodying the cumulative image of decades of Hollywood genre fiction. She's the dangerous woman, the beautiful but treacherous blonde with an icy heart, just as likely to fuck you or put an ice pick in your throat — and if you give her half a chance, eventually she'll probably do both. Verhoeven delivers the expected story, the twisty neo-noir in which the sex-addled detective falls for "the wrong woman" (as Catherine herself describes the premise of her next mystery novel), but the undercurrents of the story, the inquiry into sexual roles and the battle of the sexes, is never far from the surface.
In this respect, the film's most famous scene is Catherine's interrogation, the cool blonde facing a roomful of tough detectives and calmly dominating them with the simple gesture of crossing and uncrossing her legs. It's a brilliant scene, tracing the way these men, supposedly in control of the situation, are actually undone just by that simple flash of Catherine's bare crotch under her short skirt. They're interrogating her, and the bright lights are directed on her, but they're the ones who are sweating, stuttering, breaking down and getting angry. She simply lights a cigarette, deftly brushing aside their protestations that she can't smoke, and soon turns the line of questioning around on Nick, interrogating him when she's supposed to be the one under examination. It's an especially clever reversal because it toys with various clichés about the male gaze and Hollywood cinema, the way that exploitative films treat women as objects to be looked at rather than active protagonists in their own right. Well, Catherine is there to be looked at, her body on display, but she's also never less than active, never less than in control, presenting herself for the gaze of others; you can say a lot about Catherine but she's certainly no object. Catherine reverses the typical balance of power by making the focus of the male gaze the one who's in control, the one who has all the power in the relationship. Among other things, she's the embodiment of male fears about women in the workplace, women who are not mere beautiful playthings but are smart and capable and in control.
The film also deals with this very notion of sex and gender relations as founded on power games. Once again, it's in one of the most sexually explicit scenes that Verhoeven locates some of his most trenchant observations. The first sex scene between Nick and Catherine is a study in sex as power, the couple rolling around and exchanging roles, first one on top, in control, then the other. It looks as much like a fight, a battle, as it does like sex. Verhoeven is also interested in the possible differences between "fucking" and "making love," terms that the people in this film never use interchangeably. Catherine is of course the first to make the distinction, emphatically insisting that her relationship with her murdered boyfriend consisted only of fucking, that there was nothing deeper to it, at least for her. It comes up again after Nick violently has his way with his occasional lover and therapist, Beth (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who angrily tells him afterward, "you weren't making love." Among the film's many concerns is the question of what sex actually means, whether it can or does constitute deeper connections between people or whether it's just fucking: manipulation, power games, who's on top, who's fucking and who's being fucked. Later, a visibly softened Catherine asks Nick to "make love to" her, but one of the film's many unresolved questions is whether Catherine's icy exterior is actually melted by Nick, or if she just decides he's an especially great fuck.
What's great about Verhoeven's film, like so many of his films, is that Basic Instinct raises all these questions about sexuality and power and the media image of women without even seeming to verbalize anything greater than a grisly whodunnit with a lot of T-and-A. The film can be read just as easily either way, as a surface-level exploitation or a complex satirical commentary, and one suspects that Verhoeven likes having it both ways. This is one of the most troublesome aspects about his films, the suspicion that he enjoys smirking at his audiences, enjoys the fact that most people walk out of the movie talking only about Sharon Stone's body or the lingering mystery of whether or not Catherine "did it." At the same time, though, Basic Instinct is simply too complex, too potent, to dismiss entirely as Verhoeven condescending to popcorn moviegoers. The film ultimately positions Catherine as a surrogate for the director, manipulating and seducing the audience even as she does with Nick. Verhoeven, like Catherine, seems to enjoy the audience's appreciative gaze, but he knows that he's always the one in control.