Heads up, friends. There will be spoilers!
Erotically charged and narratively bonkers, there is still a lot to take from Paul Verhoeven’s sexy yet silly blockbuster. One thing this writer took away from this rewatch is that Michael Douglas’ Nick Curran is an absolute idiot. “You’re a good cop!” exclaims Jeanne Tripplehorn’s character, Beth Garner, at one point. He is not. Beth finds this out to her detriment. She should know better. However, she is quite infatuated with the coke-addled drunk cop. An absolute bum who manhandles her early on. Curran’s unwanted name in the film is “Shooter”. The label is given to him due to accidentally shooting two tourists while snuffling nose candy. Nick is as dumb as rocks, and part of the fun of Basic Instinct is watching his doomed trajectory.
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Who is the person who is planning his demise? That will be Sharon Stone’s Catherine Tramell; a double degreed crime novelist who is the prime suspect in the murder of a famous Rock Star that Nick is bumbling his way through. Tramell used to have sex with the victim. She is blunter with her depiction of her relationship. All evidence seems to lead to her, but Nick isn’t so sure. Partly because he lusts for Catherine. The case soon begins to unravel as Nick’s loins soon decide that they have the finger on the pulse of the case.
Paul Verhoeven’s button-pushing noir is an extremely potent thriller 30 years on. For instance, watching a film in which a volatile cop like Nick can shoot innocent tourists, while high, and still be on the force is a particularly eyebrow-raising aspect to watch in our current era. Possibly even more so than say Dirty Harry (1971). Mostly because Harry Callahan almost has a semblance of the supposed “good” cop. The second scene of Basic Instinct has Nick accidentally blaring rock music in the middle of a crime scene. It is the perfect gesture to what this guy will be like for the rest of the movie. Nick’s behaviour in the scene is foolish. The way the scene is brought together is impeccable. A wonderfully staged sequence that is blocked beautifully and highlights the protagonist perfectly. The accidental switch-on of the radio. The crass joke about the victim. It is a wonderful juxtaposition. Did you set up a scene so strikingly for this clown? Yes, and we are going to enjoy the rest of this tomfoolery.
By making it clear that we are not meant to like Nick, the film soon gives way to its real gem. Catherine Tramell was the breakthrough performance for actress Sharon Stone. It is a performance that made Stone a star, was mimicked and parodied for years to come, yet overshadowed the actresses’ talents by the particulars of Basic Instinct’s infamous interrogation scene. Remove those few seconds of titillation (which other cuts of the movie certainly did) and you still get one of the best female performances of the early ’90s. Perhaps the decade. There is so much to love about Stone’s performance. She devours every actor who shares the screen with her. It is a performance that really should not be reduced to skin, despite how much that part plays. Stone shows a lot of herself within the film yet backs everything up in her exchanges with Michael Douglas. The character is always the smartest person in the room, and it is within the carnivorous, balls to the wall performance from Stone that makes sure it convinces.
It speaks volumes that Stone reveals in the Blu-ray extras how anxious she was about making the film, because it never shows in the film. In a Vanity Fair extract of her memoir, Stone states: “Chuck, my manager at the time, had told me that no one would hire me because everyone said I wasn’t sexy. I was not, as they liked to say in Hollywood at the time, “fuckable.” Something that when we look at any frame of this movie sounds ludicrous when read.
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But the piece also highlights the amount of work she put in for a role in which co-star Douglas did not think she had the chops. That she was overlooked for many times before obtaining the role. At 32, an age which can be the death knell for an actress. It also highlighted how such a part cemented people’s views on Stone. Tramell made Stone a star, but it also gave her a persona to hide in. To survive in. And framed the actress in ways that only now, it seems, she has come to terms with. Some articles question her acting prowess, with a lot of unfortunate choices on Stone’s CV and sneering outlets such as The Razzies suggesting that she cannot. However, it is clear, like so many actors that sniffy writers like to make such snarky claims over a performer’s acting, all that is needed is the right role, and Stone is not mere titillation, but an actress of supreme charisma when given the chance.
Verhoeven plays his part too. Ever the craftsman, Basic Instinct is a noir painted with a subversive, streak. The introduction of Catherine first gives us a droll fake-out involving Catherine’s lover Roxy, coming down Double Indemnity style, hinting that she is more important than she possibly is. Catherine is constantly informing Nick and the audience of the film’s plot with her next crime novel. Many of the film’s set-pieces are outrageous, yet thatscene is remembered not just for whether we see a woman’s intimate body part, but due to the preciseness of how that scene is put together. It is one of the many scenes in which Catherine is blocked and framed in ways that suggest the power and dominance of the scene should not be held by her, yet Stone’s performance shows she is playing everyone like fools.
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Noirs are often cynical with flawed characters. As with everything, Basic Instinct goes a touch further. ensuring everyone is despicable. To say Basic Instinct is a noir on steroids is a huge cliché. But it is a film which amusingly borrows from films of old, and loads them with the same kind of Cocaine that Nick Curran enjoys. Catherine is not a murderer for money, she is a murderer for the buzz. Nick Curran is not a slightly hampered private dick or insurance salesman. He is an outrageously broken cop. It is a film that throws the polite rules out of the window and wipes its backside with the Hays Code. And even more for it. The cartoonish excess only makes everything more compelling. It is of no real surprise that it not only became a blockbuster (we see time and time again that people do enjoy lurid tales) but a slew of films wishing to get a piece of that pie trundled along afterwards. It is nice to think that after Basic Instinct we get the more refined neo-noir The Last Seduction (1994). Although it is a little more blatant that Body of Evidence (1993) was made with Basic Instinct in mind. A film that does not find the same balance of garish and gorgeous.
Reading reviews of Basic Instinct can be strange. Almost as if the writers have forgotten that this film, directed by the maker of Robocop (1987), went into making this film with the intent of making something wholly serious. The film shows its hand often. When characters are playing tonsil tennis while women’s exercise is occurring in the background of another building. At one point we see characters watching Hellraiser (1987), of all films. It is perhaps why this writer finds looking into the film’s queer reading understandable yet jarring. Stereotypes are apparent and Catherine is amoral. But even with the film’s more dubious standpoints, one’s fond disdain for the protagonist speaks louder over the representation of the film’s “villain”, the sharp, charismatic woman who quite literally takes what she wants, coming after the era where Michael Douglas was found paraphrasing that “Greed is good” in Wall Street (1987). Basic Instinct for all it is faults (does it really have to be over two hours? Is Joe Eszterhas’s dialogue worth the money he got?) can easily be read as a destruction of a certain type of white male. Especially when we consider the treatment of Tripplehorn’s Beth Garner by the protagonist as well as what the final shot of the film truly represents.
The Blu-ray’s extras are nothing that has not been on previous DVDs before, save for the more recent talking-head documentary, which features a complicated interview with Sharon Stone, which connects with what is said of her memoir. It is no shock that Stone feels absent in the older extras, yet her remarks linger more in her more recent interview. Stone feels that her performance was right for the film, yet that is not who she is as a person.
There is so much to take from this movie in terms of craft, especially in its performances. Yet Stone’s words still highlight how much of a wild west Hollywood can be for women, and how difficult it can be for truly independent ones. Another highlight stems from one of the film’s older featurettes in which we are introduced to Annette Gaudino, an activist for Queer Nation who takes part in the protests of the movie. What is fascinating to see is Gaudino not only confidently claim that the film will not stand on its own due to their efforts (they try and spoil the movie before release), but also her claims that none of Queer Nation’s other actions are in anyway censorship. Now, this film is getting re-issued again. Over 30 years after its initial success. Queer Nation’s reading of the film can still be seen in new looks at the film. A sign of their convincing argument. Yet the success, the fans, the imitators, still appear to make the argument that there is something about Basic Instinct.
30 Years on. A lifetime away from where we are now with movies, especially sexuality in the mainstream. It is amazing how sex can feel more disposable, despite sexuality becoming more fluid. Yet populist cinema can feel monolithic in its nature. Doing it’s best to hold its character’s hands in both storytelling and relationships. One can forget what strange European mavericks can do when given the keys. Basic Instinct is still amazingly sleek. Still as thick as wood. And still about two nasty people racing towards destruction. It should not work, but its craft created imitators. It is still fun to watch. It is still a beguiling hot mess.
Basic Instinct is out on Blu-ray on 14th June from Studiocanal.