Sunday, March 1, 2009

Basic Instinct

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.


Bob Turnbull said...

The one thing for which I give "Basic Instinct" credit is how it made me think more about why I like or dislike films - because I tried to figure out why I hated the damn thing so much.

One reason I would mention to people when it came up was that I found there wasn't a single redeeming characteristic in ANY character in the film. I couldn't stand any of these people and pretty much hoped for some kind of apocalypse at the end of the film to wipe them all out. But as I thought about that comment, I realized it wasn't really a good objective stance on the film. Why couldn't you make a movie with totally self-involved scum-sucking people? As a matter of fact, I'm sure I've seen a bunch since then and enjoyed them (the Pusher trilogy springs to mind as do several Japanese crime/exploitation films of the 60s/70s).

So it would be interesting for me to revisit the film now that I have a wider viewing history under my belt (and your review brings out some excellent points). But I'm in no rush...I REALLY couldn't stand the damn thing.

Ed Howard said...

Bob, very interesting thoughts about trying to parse out your objective vs. subjective responses to a movie -- it can't always be done, of course. Sometimes a movie just hits you the wrong way (or the right way) and any attempts at rationalizing or explaining your reaction are necessarily divorced from the actual experience of watching the movie. For my part, I love plenty of movies with unlikeable characters. What I respond to in movies are usually things outside the plot and characters anyway, so as long as the movie is interesting in formal and thematic terms, I'll go along for the ride with even the most unpleasant characters. I can see why this film would be polarizing, however, as all of Verhoeven's films tend to be.

Bob Turnbull said...

"What I respond to in movies are usually things outside the plot and characters anyway, so as long as the movie is interesting in formal and thematic terms, I'll go along for the ride with even the most unpleasant characters."

Exactly. I'm usually of the same mindset. So it would be interesting for me to go back to this film since it was earlier in my film "education". Having said that, you're right - I may never be able to remove myself completely from that first impression. But I've enjoyed the exercise in trying to break down my response to it - it's helped in my approaches to other films I think.

Jason Bellamy said...

"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."

Nailed it! Your analysis about the reversal of power of female nudity within the famous crotch shot is right on, too.

I have an almost nostalgic feeling about "Basic Instinct," in that it came out when I was lying my way into R movies. And at that age I was still, what's the word, relaxed enough that I could get sucked into this film's mystery without being put off by some of the awful acting.

I think Catherine must be among the top 100 greatest characters in film history. Seriously.

reassurance said...

I love that you didn't mention Joe Eszterhas once.

Ed Howard said...

I admit it, I have a real blind spot for screenwriters. I focus maybe too much on the director... one of the dangers of auteurism I suppose.

reassurance said...

Well, it's not always a bad thing. However, Basic Instinct has as much in common with the rest of Eszterhas' work as it does Verhoeven's. It's strange how the depiction of women here can be construed as a compliment for Verhoeven (especially as Stone is the perfect offshoot of Renée Soutendijk in The Fourth Man) and an insult for Eszterhas, who consistently exposes the fact that he has no clue how a woman really acts.

Travis Fields said...

Just ran across this old blog while reviewing some of my favorite neo-noir movies from the past 3 decades, and this is one of the smarter critiques of Basic Instinct I've read.

However, the author would be well served to read the original screenplay written by Joe Eszterhas -- or at least read what Joe had to say about writing it. I HIGHLY recommend reading his script if you're a fan of this film and want to know more about screenwriting. It's one of the best scripts I've ever read, and 90-something percent of the script is in the finished movie.

Verhoeven and his excellent cinematographer Jan de Bond did a great job of shooting it, but it all started with Joe's story.

The script is even better than the movie in one respect: the Police Psychologist seems like a much more plausible murder suspect than she does in the movie, which helps prolong the tension. I'm not sure if it was the casting of Jeanne Tripplehorn or Verhoeven's directing of her, or what, but while watching the movie, I never thought for a second that anyone other than Catherine could be the killer. And fwiw, the notorious leg-crossing scene is not in the script -- that was Verhoeven's idea.