Basic Instinct May 25, 2015
“I’d have to be pretty stupid to write a book about killing and then kill him the way I described in my book. I’d be announcing myself as the killer. I’m not stupid."
So purrs the mystery novel writer Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) to a roomful of doubtful detectives. Being investigated is the murder of Johnny Boz, a rock ’n’ roll star slashed to death during a round of cocaine-fueled, sadomasochistic sex. Basic Instinct opens graphically with his demise, a voluptuous blonde the killer. Tramell, his girlfriend, is, as it so happens, voluptuous and blonde. Coincidence?
“I wasn’t dating him — I was fucking him,” she elaborates to the police. She didn’t care enough about the victim to commit such a heinous act; why waste her time jeopardizing her well-being on a wealthy lay? Clever as Tramell is, though, we aren’t so sure of her innocence. So Basic Instinct spends the rest of its duration toying with us, unsure whether to label her as another red herring in the whodunit puzzle or a murderer waiting to be verified.
Basic Instinct caused quite a stir back in 1992, fought against by activists for its “evil” depiction of lesbians and bisexuals and threatened by the MPAA for its explicit scenes of sex and violence. The non-stop controversy only helped out box-office domination — audiences were dying to see what all the fuss was about — and viewing the film nearly 25 years later is a guilty pleasure, a treat in the erotic thriller genre. Everyone will find something to be offended by here, but taking Basic Instinct’s unsubtle portrayals of the sex and death 101 trope seriously is a mistake. On display is a stylish, sometimes deliriously entertaining, modern-day film noir, ready to titillate, manipulate.
Michael Douglas portrays Nick Curran, a troubled cop heading the investigation of the above-mentioned murder of Johnny Boz. Though Catherine Tramell, a brilliant, sexually wily psychopath, is the leading suspect, Curran immediately finds himself obsessed with her, despite knowing that she might be an ice-pick killer. The two embark upon a torrid, often dangerous, affair — and as things heat up, murders reminiscent of Boz’s death begin to pile up.
With his split-screen techniques and emphasis on slow-motion and close-ups, one can only imagine what Brian De Palma could do with material like this. But Paul Verhoeven, a master of seedy storytelling, makes Basic Instinct so deliberately (and masterfully) noiry that merely focusing on that moment in which Stone may or may not have exposed her vulva (I’ll get to that later) is a travesty. Most modern audiences remember the film for its soft-core sex scenes and slightly giallo slashings, but some critics, myself included, hold Basic Instinct in high regard for its exquisite style.
Sure the sex is provocative and the violence is thrillingly over-the-top. But those who view Basic Instinct as a shameless would-be porno are missing the point. I can’t say that the film is so smart that it would avoid covering the camera with Vaseline to highlight its inherent steaminess, but Verhoeven’s meticulous neo-noir flickerings make the film distinctly unforgettable instead of laughably arousing.
Famous film-noir trademarks include the decoration of rooms by the shadows of Venetian blinds and rising cigarette smoke, and not a scene in Basic Instinct goes by without masking itself with at least one of the two. Every inch of the police station is nicotine-laced and hazy, and Tramell looks lost when she isn’t squeezing a Lucky Strike between her manicured fingers.
If one were to consider what a 1950s-era film noir would look like without the censors, without the black-and-white shimmer, Basic Instinct might be the answer. Yes the film can be trashy, but it’s too precisely designed to shrug off as "trash" trash. It’s divine trash, on the spectrum of carnally subdued art with its coffee-stained cinematography, its sweeping score.
Even the infamous interrogation sequence, a staple in those “most-paused movie moment” slide shows that adorn spam websites, is a truly fantastic scene. Take away that nanosecond in which Sharon Stone uncrosses her legs and deftly reveals a nude nether region and you get a superiorly shot sequence of filmmaking, an unforgettable moment in ‘90s cinema. The room is almost metallic and unnervingly placid, the detectives as nervous as they are curt, the central Tramell a femme fatale goddess with her white minidress, white jacket, white cigarette, white pumps. The scene is fraught with sexual tension, a superior Stone cooing slick jabs (“What are you gonna do, charge me with smoking?”) at a handful of men sweating their libidos off. Though lasting just a few minutes, the entire sequence is stunning in its hush-hush game of sensual cat and mouse.
Douglas’s portrayal is perhaps too unlikable for someone supposed to be the hero (he’s much too prone to yelling, insulting, having existential crises to actually enjoy being around), but Stone is the only actor that matters. In the process, she steals the film and creates one of the most unforgettable female characters in noir history. Basic Instinct is sleazy, all right. But it isn’t the tactless blockbuster you may remember it as. It has flashes of brilliance and flashes of unpleasantness and brutality. Never, though, will you find yourself watching the clock. A-