DIRECTOR: Paul Verhoeven
KEY ACTORS: Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas, Jeanne Tripplehorn
IMDB SCORE: 6.9
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 53%
SEX SCORE: 3/5
❌ Fails the Bechdel test – none of the female characters speak to each other – and it generally portrays women very poorly…
✔️ I’ve not seen this for years but it definitely stands up to a rewatch and I’d be happy to watch it again so, yes, rewatchable!
✔️ I do think the cast are fuckable but this point comes with a caveat. The sex is hot and Sharon Stone is HOT but I really don’t rate Michael Douglas – as an actor or as an attractive lead. I don’t know why but he does nothing for me. And yet…
✔️ It did inspire fantasies – luckily for my husband, not fantasies of murder or manipulation but of sex that hot and of being a women who was in control her own pleasure. Who wouldn’t want that?
❌ But is it sex positive? Yes, it’s hot and explicit and kinky and mainstream and all about female pleasure but it’s kind of homophobic and the women are awful and sex is used as a weapon or threat and there’s the infamous story about Stone not consenting to the upskirting and I just can’t give it the mark…
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: YouTube (from £2.99), Amazon Prime (rent £2.99, buy £5.99)
I have decided to streamline this list and only mention Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime and any other free streaming services. A full list of availability can be found at JustWatch.com
[Content warning: discussion of non-consent and rape]
I don’t really have a story to tell about watching Basic Instinct for the first time. It was sometime in the last 15 years and I saw it mainly because it was a film that I felt I ought to have seen. I knew all about the interrogation scene but very little about anything else. I saw it, I was fascinated and enthralled by the sex, but didn’t think much else of it – it was ridiculous, exaggerated, pulpy, and I don’t remember it being any good. I’d wanted to see it again for a long time, mainly to see if the sex was as hot as I remembered, but had never quite got around to it. It was low down on my list of rewatches.
Basic Instinct is essentially a murder mystery story. A rockstar is stabbed with an ice pick when having sex and killed, in a method eerily similar to that described in a trashy novel written by his girlfriend, Catherine Tramell. She is the prime suspect, but is this book the perfect alibi? The murder is investigated by an unstable and hot headed cop, Nick, who falls under Catherine’s spell and, well, all hell breaks loose. It’s tense, there are plot twists every two minutes, and I thought it was kind of stupid. Not bad, in the same way that Under Siege isn’t bad. Just stupid.
Except that I can see now that I completely missed the point! For its many flaws, which I’ll get to later, Basic Instinct is absolutely note perfect satire. Satire of the film noir genre, of the femme fatale trope, of everything Hitchcock made but definitely of Vertigo. It subtly but definitely mocks cops, detective movies, the 80s/early 90s (the dancing in the club is just too much), and I’d even go as far as to say that it is personally mocking Michael Douglas. How else do you explain that ridiculous green v-neck that he wears to the club? Combined with that ‘sexy-angry’ face that he wears throughout the film, he is a caricature of himself and that scene may be exactly when I stopped believing him as a heroic figure. And all in all, it’s clever. It’s really fucking clever.
I should have expected it. From RoboCop to Starship Troopers and all the way to ShowGirls, Verhoeven makes cutting satires that slice straight through whatever he is trying to expose but his satire is never obvious. In fact, it’s possible to watch the film, think it’s ridiculous and never understand his purpose (as I did with ShowGirls, a film on my list to review soon!) but the movie is so much better when you do!
Basic Instinct is also important as it marked a turning point in cinema history, ‘hitting America like a tidal wave of cynical hedonism run rampant.’ The indulgent excesses of the 80s were fading and we were moving into the steadier safer 90s, and here was a movie about excess and greed and sex but which had 80s yuppie hero Michael Douglas being brought down by the sexy and dangerous newcomer Sharon Stone rather than triumphing. It’s seedy, it’s gritty. It’s a film without heroes, without a good guy, without a clear moral conclusion and one that brought sex and kink and bisexuality to the mainstream in a way that changed everything that came after it.
And, of course, the sex was all that anyone talked about. It was all I remembered after all! Somehow managing to keep an R-rating in USA (avoiding an NC-17 was seemingly a bigger deal there as it was given an 18 certificate in the UK without much fuss), it has some of the most explicit and realistic sex that I’ve seen on screen outside of porn. Roger Ebert describes the sex scenes as belonging to ‘that strange neverland created by the MPAA’s Hollywood morality,’ showing what is allowed rather than what is good. He claims that trimming down hard-core sex to get a lower rating ends up being less erotic than more subtle, implied action,but I don’t think I can agree. The film buff in me knows that walking that ‘ratings line’ was necessary for the satire to work, over exaggerating the pleasure and hedonism, but as a horny kinkster, I also know it’s just hot!
Sex under a mirrored ceiling? Hot. Tying wrists to the bed head to restrict your partner’s movement? Hot! Having your partner look up at you from between your legs as he eats you out? So so hot!! And the sex looked realistic enough to be believable. Everyone having sex with Catherine Tramell, Sharon Stone’s character, looked like they were having a really great time! It was sweaty and exhausting and parts of it at least showed sex that I recognised. Hot. Just hot.
Thinking about all the sex does reveal one of the major conflicts that I have with this movie. Is it sex positive? I concluded that it wasn’t in the end, but it wasn’t an easy decision. There is a lot to be said in its favour! For a start, it’s an erotic thriller where both of the main actors were over 30. Sharon Stone was 34 when it was released and Michael Douglas was 48. It also places female pleasure in the front and centre of the plot. Catherine does what she does and fucks as she fucks because it gives her pleasure. She doesn’t feel tied to old-fashioned expectations – ‘I wasn’t dating him. I was fucking him’ – and she is definitely in control of her body.
But, and this particular but comes up a lot when I’m thinking about positives for this film, she’s a complete psycho. [Edited in October 2019: I’d forgotten that I’d described Catherine this way as I’ve written in later weeks about how I dislike the common movie connection between mental illness and being evil. I’m sorry this one slipped through – Catherine is manipulative but, from memory, had no mental health diagnosis.]
It’s difficult to really take any positives from Catherine’s character because she’s such a terrible person. She’s the closest this movie has to a baddy! She’s manipulative and calculating. To quote from the film, ‘she’s evil. She’s brilliant!’ She’s much, much cleverer than anyone else but we’re not supposed to aspire to be her – she’s a warning to us all about the dangers of smart, sexual women.
Thinking about it, there are actually no women in this film who aren’t portrayed as at least a few sandwiches sort of a picnic. They’re either convicted murderers, stalkers or frankly unhinged. To me, it doesn’t matter that all the men are idiots and, my god, are they stupid. It’s not enough. Portraying women in this way is just perpetuating the patriarchy.
And I can completely understand why there were protests from gay rights activists about how lesbians and bisexual women are portrayed. Roxy, Catherine’s lover, is jealous, possessive and homicidal, confirming a long-standing Hollywood trope that lesbians are somehow evil, and it is really no comfort that all of the other characters are despicable too. Roger Ebert claims that protestors should ‘take note of the fact that this film’s heterosexuals, starting with Douglas, are equally offensive’ as if that would silence their arguments. Sadly, I fear this just reveals his privilege – being mocked or ridiculed or defamed is no big deal when society in general accepts you and doesn’t question your existence and rights.
Beth, Jeanne Tripplehorn’s character, is another character that particularly suffers to elevate Catherine. She’s a psychologist whose opinion is frequently sought but she never seems to a professional scene when she isn’t being overridden by a male colleague, or by Douglas himself. I don’t know why they gave her character such an intellectual career unless Verhoeven was deliberately trying to show her as a lesser women than Catherine.
I also can’t mention Beth without mentioning her sex scene with Nick. Unlike the other sex in the movie, I did not want this type of sex but it was no less recognisable. Angry, fierce, entirely for his pleasure and in a consent grey area that looks decidedly rapey to me. Yes, she was there for sex but was she there for sex like that? Was this meant to highlight her weakness or emphasise Nick’s power? I can’t quite fit it into the rest of the plot, except perhaps to reaffirm that Nick is a twat but extra confirmation really wasn’t necessary!
Talking of non-consent brings me around to the infamous interrogation scene. What extraordinary cinema! It’s such a perfect scene – Catherine, dressed in white and looking stunning under the lights, holds every man in that room in the palm of her hand. She may be the suspect but none of the policemen could control her. She is in charge of everything; confident, slick, upfront about sex, teasing the increasingly sweaty men who are trying to intimidate her. In this context, the leg-crossing scene is the ultimate power play and it’s fucking hot. She’s taunting them with her sexuality, so close and yet unreachable.
But IMDB reports that Sharon Stone had no idea that she would be so exposed when filming, which is frankly horrifying. According to Stone, Verhoeven asked her to remove her underwear as it was causing a shine on the camera and she agreed ‘under the assumption that her genitals weren’t visible,’ only discovering the truth at an early preview. What the actual fuck? Talk about a violation! Verhoeven’s version is slightly different, claiming that Stone changed her mind about the shot and asked for it to be removed, but he refused. I’ve got to be honest – this is no better! It’s still a massive violation!! Particularly in scenes with such a sexual content, she surely should be in control of how her body is used? Urgh…
As usual, I could witter on and on about everything that interested me about this film but I’ll finish with a subject that I could write 2000 plus words on alone – how the influence of Alfred Hitchcock is just flooding through this film. He’s there in the intense creepy music, in the car chases and shots within cars that were so clearly filmed in a studio. Thinking of Vertigo in particular, he’s there in San Francisco, in the clifftop scenery and long rolling avenues. And he’s there in the blonde heroine.
So much of Catherine’s style appears to be straight from Kim Novak’s wardrobe but they also share that typically Hitchcockian trait being icy cold and calculating. Hitchcock blondes are ‘beautiful and eye-catching, sure, but they also project the qualities of independence, poise, range, determination and, most significant, mystery.’ Hitchcock is said to have felt that blondes were ‘less suspicious’ than brunettes, which allowed him to create a duality of character – outwardly classic, beautiful, cool and internally conflicted, mysterious and aflame. He felt there was a ‘greater shock’ when a blonde is deceitful, further adding to the intrigue of his plot. Of course, it is possible that he was justifying a personal preference and there is much to suggest that Hitchcock had a very strange relationship with the women in his movies, but his legacy is certainly felt in Basic Instinct.
All the women are blonde and hiding a mysterious and potentially murderous past, apart from Beth who is the more traditional doormat of a women and is a more domestic brunette. Except, of course, when Beth’s history with Catherine is revealed and she becomes a suspect in her own right. Photos of her back then show a blonde woman.
Next week: Secretary