Thursday 24 June 2021

From the archive: "Basic Instinct"

The succès de scandale of 1992, Basic Instinct confirmed its Dutch émigré director Paul Verhoeven as Hollywood's new leading envelope-pusher, while elevating female lead Sharon Stone - briefly noted as Arnie's duplicitous wife in Verhoeven's 1990 hit Total Recall - to international notoriety. The murder of a rockstar in flagrante delicto brings suspicion on his on-off girlfriend Catherine Tramell (Stone), a bisexual novelist whose last pulp effort ("Love Hurts") detailed the murder of a rockstar by his own girlfriend. Chief among the detectives working the case is Nick "Shooter" Curran (Michael Douglas), a reformed alcoholic lurching off the wagon again following an incident which resulted in the shooting of several tourists. Enough parallels are set up between cop and suspected killer ("she's as crazy as you are, Curran") for us to grab a feel for where this is going; sure enough, Tramell starts to get inside Curran's head, by getting both her front and back bottoms out repeatedly, and thereafter to lead the better part of San Francisco's predominantly male police force around by their dicks. 

Foremost among the many hot-potato topics the film set up for discussion (Hollywood homophobia, Douglas and Jeanne Tripplehorn's near-rape scene, the pricelessly scratty V-neck gardening jumper Douglas wears to go to a gay bar) was whether Catherine Tramell's free-and-easy sexuality should be a cause for celebration or not. Her pen name Catherine Woolf suggests a certain sisterly kinship with the great suffering scribes of the past, although as a creation of Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who would go on to give the world the provocation-too-far that was 1995's Showgirls, it's almost inevitable she should have to manipulate men more with her crotch than she does with her mind, and - as it were - show her workings while she goes about it. Detach film from residual brouhaha, and what Verhoeven and Eszterhas were serving up here was a sort of lipsmacking trash cocktail, tossing handfuls of pulp cliches (the renegade detective, the killer blonde, the streets of San Francisco) into a blender along with multiple red herrings and a whole lot of wry, postmodern irony.

Every last one of its central figures - Douglas's dumb dick, Stone's femme fatale, even George Dzundza's eminently disposable sidekick - is someone who knows the role they're meant to be playing, and sets about playing it accordingly. So much of the dialogue could have been ripped from La Tramell's potboilers that the characters start to joke about it; the mirror above the novelist's bed is there specifically so she and her conquests can watch themselves fuck; Dzundza even appears to react to the killer's fatal assault on him before that assault has been made. The film is nothing if not acutely self-aware, which distinguishes it from what preceded and followed it. According to Verhoeven - who demonstrates a tiny touch of class by casting Dorothy Malone from The Big Sleep as one of his more illustrious red herrings - knowledge (and knowingness) is power, and power is immensely seductive. There's probably something to be said in favour of the old-school, non-ironic erotic thriller, for films that don't sport the prophylactic quotation marks Verhoeven and Eszterhas wrap around every frame of theirs, but there's still a certain pleasure to be taken from their approach: it's horny Agatha Christie, basically, a Columbo in an even grubbier mac, tumbling squarely into the category of Glossy Nonsense That Still Just About Works. 

As is often the case in Verhoeven films, everybody's been coached to give their all. Initiating a run of choices that spawned a thousand Troubled Masculinity thinkpieces, Douglas flounts Hollywood protocol by briefly getting his front bottom out, if that's your wrinkly old bag; Stone's smirk launched a career that had its moments (Casino, The Mighty); while Verhoeven displays a funny but endearing thing for portly and/or sleazy-looking character actors (Dzundza, Daniel von Bargen, Jack McGee, Wayne Knight). The sexiest element here, Tripplehorn's insouciant shrink, deserves neither the Reader's Wives backstory of college lesbianism nor her third-act turn in the hallway, and the actress merited her own substantial career boost off the back of it, but then Waterworld was going to help nobody. Its legacy was a brief explosion of pricey sex romps with A-list performers: Douglas almost repeated the success, alongside Demi Moore, with 1994's Disclosure, but the less said about the exertions of Madonna (Body of Evidence, 1992), Bruce Willis (Color of Night, 1994), or even Stone's own tardy attempt to rekindle the magic with 2006's Basic Instinct 2, the better.

(March 2008)

Basic Instinct is now available in a 4K Collector's Edition Blu-Ray through StudioCanal.

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