Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Tag: LGBT

Colette

YEAR: 2018
DIRECTOR: Wash Westmoreland
KEY ACTORS: Keira Knightley, Dominic West
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 6.7
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 87%

SEX SCORE: 4/5
✔️ This movie is rewatchable. It’s beautiful and funny and interesting, and I definitely want to watch it again!
✔️ It’s easily sex positive. There are feminist issues, certainly, but all the characters have a level of sexual freedom and acceptance of each other’s needs that is admirable and not always present in relationships, even today.
✔️ It also has no problem passing the Bechdel Test. Colette and Missy talk a lot about subjects that don’t involve men, as do Colette and the other women she meets in the Paris salon scene, who are handily introduced to her when she meets them!
✔️ I would also fuck the cast without much hesitation. I have carried a torch for Dominic West since The Wire, which even a dodgy goatee and a dodgier personality can’t entirely extinguish, but Keira Knightley is the star. Colette is witty and intelligent, and Knightley gives her a spark that is frankly irresistible!
❌ But narrowly missing a 5/5 score, it didn’t inspire fantasies. Hot as they may look, I’m not gay so the lesbian love scenes didn’t inspire me beyond wanting hot sex in general, and the dress up scenes with Dominic West were definitely on the creepy end of the hot-or-not scale…

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Netflix, Amazon Prime (rent £1.99, buy £6.99), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

Poster for Colette, showing a determined looking Keira Knightley wearing a great hat!

Today’s movie was one that I hadn’t seen before this week, and I watched it in the most wonderfully indulgent style – sat on an enormous, ridiculously comfy sofa, surrounded by cheesy deliciousness, wine and good friends. It was perfect! And I was so happy to watch it with these particular friends as Exposing 40 and Haiku are such interesting people to talk to about, well, almost anything, but especially about marriage and different types of relationships – pertinent topics when watching Colette.

Colette tells the true story of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Knightley), a young woman from the French countryside who marries a celebrity of sorts from Paris. Her husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (West), better known by his nom-de-plume, Willy, is a vibrant member of the Parisian salon scene and is famous for writing stories and reviews…very few of which he actually writes, delegating that part to his ‘factory.’ When Willy’s extravagant lifestyle and infidelities catch up with him, he persuades Colette to write stories for him to increase his output and, therefore, his income. To Willy’s surprise, Colette’s novels about a young girl called Claudine’s sexual and romantic adventures become wildly successful, creating a social phenomenon, but Colette receives none of the credit. They were written by Willy after all. Frustrated and held back by Willy, Colette rebels, learns to become a mime and leaves Willy for Missy, a genderqueer Marquis who shows Colette that women don’t need to be wives or feminine to be accepted by society.

Image from Colette showing Colette writing

The true story of Colette and the issue of marital plagiarism is such an interesting one. The real woman was clearly a genius – a future Nobel prize nominee and author of many best-selling novels after divorcing Willy – but Willy was not wrong when he claimed that novels written by women are less successful as they were deemed to be harder to publish and harder to sell. It’s why Mary Ann Evans wrote as George Eliot rather than her own name in the 1800s and why, even in the 20th century, JK Rowling chose to publish under her initials rather than her obviously feminine real name. And by the time Colette wrote the famous Claudine novels, ‘Willy’ was a brand, as he claimed. His use of ghost-writers was well known within the industry and ‘Willy’ was already rumoured to be more than just that one man. Why risk their main source of income by rocking the boat and confirming what was already suspected anyway?

But, to me, these are simply excuses. And misogynist ones at that! Once the brand was established and once the character, Claudine, had built a diehard fan base, why couldn’t they come clean? In a society where women had so few opportunities to succeed creatively, why couldn’t they take that risk now? Except that, of course, revealing who had actually written his greatest works would discredit Willy. Without her novels, he would be unsuccessful and broke. He would have nothing.

And the power was all on his side and he had no desire to change that. Unless Willy himself gave credit to Colette, who would believe her? Although he does end up asking for them to be destroyed, just in case, Willy is able to look at Colette’s handwritten stories within his infrequent notes in the margin and claim that this is proof of their collaboration. Watching this with Haiku, she was reminded of a similar story from the 1970s where Margaret Keane’s husband took credit for her distinctive big eyed paintings so convincingly that a judge asked them both to paint for him under observation to prove who was the real artist. Marriage laws tend to side with the husband, essentially giving him ownership of his wife and, by default, her creative results. Which is frustrating, to say the least, and I am so pleased that Colette managed to successfully publish under her own name later in life.

Image from Colette showing Willy as the toast of the Paris salon

But while the headline plot from Colette is the trouble that she had getting credit for her writing, I was much more interested in the romantic plot and the dynamics of their marriage. Because, until Colette’s fight for professional acknowledgement drove the final nail into the coffin of their relationship, they seemed to have found a balance that sort of worked for them. They had an uneven and not entirely satisfactory open relationship, sure, but a Time biography suggested that it was Willy who finally asked for a divorce and that Colette had been happy in their non-monogamous partnership. They clearly also married initially for love – Colette even jokes that she didn’t bring a dowry. The respect and admiration that they felt for each other was visible in how Knightley and West played the characters, with the Guardian review praising their performances for suggesting that ‘Colette and Willy did enjoy something like a real love affair, and that Colette was never simply a victim, nor Willy simply an exploiter.’ As with so much in life, it was much more complicated than that!

I do believe that they loved each other. I believed that they had a real partnership, not just a marriage of convenience or financial need. And they were sweet together! Willy referring to himself as a ‘pot-bellied stove’ when offering to warm her up in bed really made me smile and there seemed to be genuine companionship in much of their interactions and ease with each other. Having a 10-month old baby who seems to have been snotty for weeks now, there was definitely a note of familiarity in Colette noticing a stain on her dress as they arrived at a party, scratching it and joyfully declaring that it was just toothpaste, and I loved how Willy soon gave up trying to change how Colette dressed and let her wear what made her comfortable.

But despite this easy companionship and mutual respect, we still spent much of the film declaring what an awful husband Willy was! The problem comes because their relationship had such a clear gender imbalance. Willy is in charge; he is the man of the house and Colette is only able to do what she does because he allows it. Yes, he appeared to respect her but their public presence particularly did not demonstrate that Willy thought of them as equals. He would regularly order her around, demanding that they left parties when he wanted to leave, and would lock her up to ‘encourage’ her to write. And he can get away with anything he wants because that’s what men do. Once again, husbands owned their wives and could do what they wanted with them.

This also extended to Willy’s infidelities and sexual indiscretions. ‘Flirtation is what one does!’ he tells her. And later, he tells Colette that she needn’t feel threatened by him seeing a sex worker as ‘she’s no rival…it’s what gentlemen do.’ Willy benefits from the patriarchal society and doesn’t do anything to change it. And there was so much opportunity to be fairer!

Image from Colette showing Willy with Colette and another woman on his knees

As I briefly mentioned in the post on Up in the Air, I am in an open marriage myself but the arrangement that Willy and Colette have is a type of non-monogamous relationship that personally isn’t for me. Obviously, everyone’s experience is different but I’m not a fan of the One Penis Policy. This type of open relationship is not uncommon but I can’t view an agreement where the man can sleep with as many women as they want but the woman isn’t allowed to sleep with an equivalent number of men as anything other than misogynist. The woman can fuck other women, which is OK because the man gets to remain the man of the house? Because sex with women is of less value than sex with men? Because men only get jealous of other men, like they’re a new patriarch trying to disrupt the pack? Because fucking a penis infers a level of ownership that can’t be shared? Sorry, it’s not for me. And it destroys any chance that Willy had of being a progressive husband – even if he does happily let his wife fuck as many women as she wants.

And Colette is very aware of the inequality of their marriage. She asks about opening their marriage completely but Willy refuses. And, of course, this does create resentment. It does foster and maintain inequality. As Missy tells her, ‘it’s a long leash he keeps you on, but it is a leash.’

The inequality in their non-monogamous marriage is further exacerbated because Willy keeps secrets and has affairs. He doesn’t tell her who he’s fucking, which in my opinion still constitutes cheating even in an open relationship. Of course, Colette fights back against these slights, but not because she wanted him to stop; she just wanted him to keep her in the loop: ‘I want to be part of things. I don’t want to be a little wife at home.’ I completely understand this attitude. It’s not the open marriage that it’s the problem; it’s the lies. Like the One Penis Policy, they maintain a hierarchy and power dynamic that places Willy in charge and Colette as his inferior. Who wouldn’t fight back against that sort of arrangement?

Image from Colette showing Colette looking fabulous with a lady in her underwear in the background

Particularly as Colette is clearly a bisexual woman with a high sex drive, and I love how this was celebrated on screen. ‘The wild days have just begun,’ she announces when presented to Parisian society and Willy’s peers joke that he’ll have to settle down now that he’s married. She asks for sex and it is Willy who turns her down as he’s too tired; she goes after what and who she wants and is happy to make the first move; and, of course, Claudine’s adventures that make them so famous are Colette’s adventure, her school days and her memories. It is almost the ultimate expression of the patriarchy that Willy thought he could control her just because he married her!

Another aspect of this film that I really loved seeing presented so well was the handling of gender. I would be fascinated to know how this film might have looked if it had been released 10 or even just 5 years ago. Take Missy, for example – at one stage, Colette makes a very deliberate effort to correct Willy when he calls him ‘she,’ implying that Missy had changed his pronouns to a more masculine form of he/his. It was so seamlessly handled, without fuss or really much acknowledgement, that it could easily have been missed, proving to any doubters that changing pronouns is not a big deal and doesn’t need to be a major plot point. ‘Words are either masculine or feminine.’ Colette tells Willy, ‘There’s no word for Missy.’ And that’s all that needed to be said. After all, Missy’s gender isn’t why Colette falls for her, and the scandal surrounding their relationship stems from the fact that they are supposedly two women kissing on stage, rather than Missy’s gender flexibility.

Image from Colette showing Colette and Missy embracing on stage

But I was most pleased to see this small detail in the film as they didn’t need to include it. The real Missy, Mathilde de Morny, was notorious for dressing in men’s clothes at a time when this was scandalous enough, but there is no evidence to suggest she was trans. Rumour, yes, but no facts. So I liked that the writers chose to highlight this pronoun change as it must have been a deliberate choice, and one that might not have been made in the past.

Another deliberate choice that also made me happy when I heard it was Missy’s acknowledgement that it was his financial privilege and status that gave him the freedom to dress how he wanted and act as he did. Even though he created a scandal, his life wasn’t at risk; he was able to survive. When looking back at figures in history who have been trailblazers for sexuality or who have challenged accepted gender norms, it tends to be the stories of those with this kind of privilege that make history – to misuse a quote from the film, ‘it’s the hand that holds the pen that writes history’ – and it made the story of Colette and Missy so much more powerful that this was acknowledged.

Image from Colette, showing Missy in a dinner jacket

So what and who is Colette? The Guardian felt that it was an ‘empowering and entertaining tale of a woman finding her own voice in a society in flux;’ the Telegraph described her as an ‘ahead-of-her-time queer icon with a complex attitude to her own femininity.’

For me, it is a story of progress and is almost a prolonged coming of age movie. Who says we are fully formed once leave home or fall in love, as traditional coming of age films would suggest? Colette needed Willy to find herself; she needed his encouragement to write in the first place, his sexing up of her writing to help her find her style, his freedom and (admittedly salacious) encouragement to fuck around with the women in Paris to discover what she wanted. ‘You’re the only woman I could ever love,’ he tells her. ‘And you’re at your most brilliant with me.’ Their marriage was a disaster, but it was the catalyst that Gaby, the young country girl Sidonie-Gabrielle, needed to become Colette, the pioneer and trendsetter. Colette is a ‘nuanced tale of outgrowing: not just a childish and bullying spouse, but an age of acquiescence.’ Yes, she was scandalous but she helped to change how women are perceived and what they were allowed to do – creatively and personally.

After all, ‘since when has scandal been a bad thing?’

Next week – Pride and Prejudice

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show

YEAR: 1975
DIRECTOR: Jim Sharman
KEY ACTORS: Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.4
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 80%

SEX SCORE: 3.5/5
✔️ So Rocky Horror passes the Bechdel Test, but this is another example where it can be argued that its passing is ‘dubious.’ It does literally pass the binary test, but all the qualifying conversations between named female characters are still about sex…just sex with a woman.
✔️ It is rewatchable. But I’d recommend watching it at the cinema if at all possible – it is so much more fun that way!
✔️ And I do want to fuck the cast. They’re all either very extreme or very normal, but the characters are so horny that they have an undeniable appeal. Also, I love a man in stockings…
❓ Unsure if this really count as inspiring a fantasy as it didn’t get quite as far as a full-blown fantasy, but this film is certainly the first time that I saw a man in heels and stockings look so good and, lets just say, it changed things!
❌ But considering how revolutionary it was at the time it was released and how important it has been to queer representation, I don’t think Rocky Horror is sex positive. Frank is too predatory; Rocky is too exploited; Janet is not a slut. It’s wonderful but its sexual politics haven’t aged so well.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £3.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

The poster from Rocky Horror showing Dr Frank N Furter sitting on a pair of red lips

The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not so much a movie as an experience. A phenomenon. First released to mixed reception in 1975, it has become the archetypal cult film. Regular midnight showings are congregated by hordes of fancy-dressed diehard fans who add their own lines between those on screen and bring props to interact with the story themselves. It’s like nothing else; Rocky Horror is an institution.

OK before we get into it, let’s try to summarise the plot! Average American couple, Brad (Bostwick) and Janet (Sarandon), have a puncture when driving through the woods in a storm and approach a strange castle to see if they have a telephone to call for help. The castle is the home of Dr Frank N Furter (Curry) and his servants who persuade Brad and Janet to stay the night by singing and dancing and, well, taking their clothes. Frank invites them up to his lab (to see what’s on the slab) where he has created a perfect man – the eponymous Rocky Horror – essentially as a sex toy. Later in the night, Frank tricks both Brad and Janet into sleeping with him and then, well, it becomes a bit chaotic! There’s a scientist in a wheelchair, cannibalism, turning people to stone, more stockings, more songs, a musical number/orgy in a swimming pool and eventually Frank’s servants, RiffRaff and Magenta, turn on him and reveal themselves to all be aliens from Transylvania. They kill Frank, release Brad and Janet, and take off in the castle-spaceship to return to Transylvania. Phew…

Image from Rocky Horror, showing the main characters dancing a chorus line in stockings and suspenders

Now, Rocky Horror is a film whose legend is almost bigger than the film itself, and I knew all about it and its following long before I had ever seen it. My mother used to tell me stories of going to see it in the 1980s, singing and bringing along water pistols to create rain, and it sounded like the most incredible thing I had ever heard. I’m a huge fan of immersive cinema now but it was so new when I heard stories about these midnight showings that they sounded like magic and I was desperate to be a part of it. I wanted to see the movie so much – and I wanted to see it in the cinema, late at night, wearing fishnets and throwing pieces of toast into the air. Except that I was about 10 at the time my mother told me these stories and living in deepest darkest countryside so I couldn’t go even if I were allowed!

Sadly, years and years and years then passed and I still had not seen the film so when I spotted it on TV, I thought I’d give it a watch. And, honestly, I thought it was really weird. It was so bizarre and I didn’t get it. At all. I was so disappointed! But when I mentioned this to my mother, she wasn’t surprised – it is a strange film and it does make no sense, and that’s because it can’t easily be watched in isolation. As Roger Ebert wrote, Rocky Horror is a movie that ‘played as a backdrop to the stage show by the fans.’ It needs the fans and the interaction to make sense! So I tried again. I found a proper showing and, although I didn’t dress up as I was there by myself and wasn’t ready for that, it had everything else and it was in-credible. Over the top and immersive and hysterical, and I loved it. And now I won’t watch it any other way!

An image from Rocky Horror showing Rocky wearing gold hotpants

For me, this was the first introduction to how powerful community can be, particularly kink, queer and sex positive communities. Although Rocky Horror isn’t perfect, it was one of the earliest mainstream representations of queerness on screen and these midnight showings ‘provided a place where the socially and sexually marginalised could gather each week and rejoice in each other’s company.’ Even in otherwise pretty conservative cities, showings of Rocky Horror would allow people to gather together and express themselves in a way that would often be frankly dangerous in other circumstances: ‘It was a family. A loose, cliquish one divided into participants and gawkers, to be sure, but a community nonetheless.

The importance of this community cannot be overstated. It was a safe space at a time when there weren’t enough of these available. Frank is a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania and he is awesome! He’s wearing make-up and stockings and heels and he is powerful. And within the hyperactive and bizarre context of the movie, he isn’t a joke; he makes sense. I cannot imagine how freeing it must have been to ‘see someone like Frank-N-Furter be the leader of a society and be unapologetically confident and sexually ambiguous.’ Not only him, there is gender queer representation all over the place with femme and masc presenting observers among the TimeWarp dancers. Alongside this, Brad and Janet represent the more vanilla, mainstream attitudes so everyone could feel welcome: ‘It is an opportunity to see oneself in a film, it provides a place for self-expression, and it gives meaning to peoples’ lives…Brad and Janet embody the more conservative audience of the film, while Frank-N-Furter and his servants give a voice to those who have never felt represented by characters in film or television.’

An image from Rocky Horror showing a dancing troupe dancing to the Time Warp

I am very fortunate because I have never needed a safe place like this as being myself has never carried the same risks as those faced by LGBT people in the 1970s and 1980s, but I still recognise how much having a community of like minded people has changed and supported me. Interacting with people who share my less mainstream values on sex, non-monogamy or kink has given me the confidence to accept those parts of me with less shame or concern than I would have if I’d faced them alone. So I can completely understand how watching Dr Frank N Furter up there on screen and then making friends with others in the audience who experienced the same challenges would have encouraged a sense of belonging and confidence that helped people accept themselves, and maybe accept themselves enough to come out.

An image from Rocky Horror showing Brad and Janet opening the castle door and shaking hands with RifRaf

But the world is different now and so is Rocky Horror’s place in it. In 1975, Rocky Horror was released into a pre-AIDS world where homosexuality had only been removed from the American Classification of Mental Disorders two years previously (something the WHO wouldn’t do until 1992!) and where Pride movements were still in their earliest stages – the rainbow Pride flag would only be adopted three years later. In 1975, queer communities needed this movie and this safe space as they had so little else.

Now, in 2019, while there is obviously still much work to be done, society is more accepting of queer and trans people, and so Rocky Horror has lost some of its power. You could say that it’s done its job! But now that it’s no longer a ‘boundary breaker,’ what is it?

Well, as dominant cultures tend to do, it’s been appropriated by the mainstream! Rocky Horror has been described as ‘LGBT cosplay for straight people’ and as a ‘chance for the comfortable to dip their toes in their perception of LGBT culture.’ It is no longer a groundbreaking safe place; Rocky Horror is a circus act.

And when viewed in this way, it starts to look much more problematic. Take Frank N Furter as an obvious example – he is extreme and over the top, but outside of the over the top context of the movie and the historical context of the time, he is just a predator. His aggressive form of sexuality can even make him look like ‘a caricature of the LGBT predator conservative lawmakers are so intent on convincing us is real.’ He manipulates Brad and Janet into sleeping with him by hiding his identity until the last minute, a clear consent violation; he builds Rocky to have sex with and literally chases him around the castle when Rocky tries to escape, suggesting Rocky doesn’t really consent to fucking Frank either. And don’t forget that Frank kills and then eats Eddie when he looks elsewhere. He is a monster! As the Houston Press so descriptively put it, ‘remove the singing and he is basically Buffalo Bill with better fashion sense.

Image from Rocky Horror showing a snarling Frank N Furter

In fact, Jef Rouner, writing for the Houston Press in 2017, now has very strong views about the problematic nature of Rocky Horror in the modern world, describing how his relationship with the movie has changed. He went from regular performer and disciple to hesitating to share the movie that means so much to him with his daughter as he’s not certain it contains messages he wants her to hear. ‘Screaming “slut” whenever anyone says Janet’s name is arguably the single most basic call line in Rocky Horror history,’ he explains, and even though she has no more sex than the other main characters, she is the only one to get labeled.

An image from Rocky Horror showing Janet and Rocky wrapped in a blanket

When asked to justify the use of this sort of language, Rouner used to respond with ‘righteous indignation,’ citing tradition and the ‘unique cinematic experience’ of Rocky as reasons why the complaint held no merit. Now older, he has realised that he had been wrong to disregard their concerns: ‘Looking back at it now, I sounded like freakin’ GamerGate. I sounded like every other aggrieved son of privilege beating his chest because his toys made other people uncomfortable. It’s a weirdly conservative mind-set for something that was supposed to be about breaking boundaries.’

So what is Rocky Horror now?

Well, to me, it’s a testament to progress. It is dated and it is problematic – but as are so many other movies from the 1970s. The 1970s were a problematic time! We do live in a different time now, thank goodness, and we can’t expect media from the past to represent current attitudes. It can still be enjoyed if we look at it critically and understand what was important and what is important, and what we can and have learned from it.

And it is definitely ‘encouraging that the world no longer needs Rocky Horror the way it did in decades past.’ So maybe it is now just the ‘richest sources of holiday costume ideas’ to come out of the history of cinema. And maybe it is an excuse for the conservative and conventional to drag up and maybe it too problematic to be anything other than a bit of fun.

But, oh, what fun it is! I still love watching this film and still love to dress up and sing along. And maybe, just maybe, there are still people who will benefit from seeing ‘two conventional young sheeple having their eyes opened to all the possibilities of absolute pleasure’ by going to the movies and spending ‘two hours in the dark with a bunch of other weirdoes!

Next week: Colette

Thank you to ‘Rainbow Revolutions‘ by Jamie Lawson and Eve Lloyd Knight for providing a great history of the fight for queer rights. Definite recommendation!
Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

Basic Instinct

YEAR: 1992
DIRECTOR: Paul Verhoeven
KEY ACTORS: Sharon Stone, Michael Douglas, Jeanne Tripplehorn
CERTIFICATE: 18
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]

The poster for Basic Instinct - Michael Douglas looking over to the right with Sharon Stone glaring over his shoulder

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!

Stone leaning back as Douglas kisses the front of her neck. Both are naked.

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.

Stone looking up at Douglas

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.

Stone and Sarelle, with their arms around each other

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.

Tripplehorn looking at Douglas, who is looking elsewhere

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.

A gif of Sharon Stone dressed in white and sitting with her legs crossed, rubbing them against each other

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.

Fancy that.

Next week: Secretary

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only. Gifs from Giphy.