The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - BASIC INSTINCT | The Movie Waffler

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Re-Release Review - BASIC INSTINCT

basic instinct review
A San Francisco detective falls for the novelist suspected of killing a record producer.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Paul Verhoeven

Starring: Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, Jeanne Tripplehorn, George Dzundza, Denis Arndt

basic instinct poster

In the decades since its release, I can't think of another movie that generated as much buzz as Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct did back in 1992. Among my peers at my Catholic boys school it was certainly the most talked about movie of the year, and no doubt the most paused when it hit VHS. The tabloids couldn't get enough of it, setting the hype train in motion months before its release once word got out that this was a film that was going to push the boundaries of what could be shown in a Hollywood movie. The then relatively unknown Sharon Stone took Princess Diana's place as the most photographed and talked about woman in the world. On its release, the film was a massive hit, spawning a slew of imitators from glossy Hollywood productions starring Madonna to the many Shannon Tweed fronted straight to video knockoffs that sated teenage boys' curiosity in the years before the internet gave them access to a world of hardcore porn.

For a movie that occupied so many column inches, Basic Instinct was summarily dismissed by critics on release as a piece of vapid, exploitative trash. Ironically, it was feminist critics, spearheaded by Camille Paglia, who gave it the most favourable reviews, praising the film's portrayal of a powerful woman who wraps men around her fingers. While in production, the film was picketed by LGBT rights groups, but its bisexual villainess has become something of a queer icon in the years since.

basic instinct review

So is Basic Instinct a piece of misogynistic, homophobic trash or a classic depiction of queer female power? Well, it's both, and neither. Basic Instinct is the most frustrating movie in Verhoeven's filmography, a mass of contradictions. On one hand it feels like the quintessential Verhoeven movie with its boundary pushing depictions of sex and violence and its prodding of conservative and liberal mores, but on the other it feels compromised, a case of a European filmmaker mocking American sensibilities while simultaneously trying to work within a traditional thriller template.


Basic Instinct made headlines for many reasons. One of them was the then staggering $4 million sum paid for Joe Esterhasz's script. If Basic Instinct works, it's in spite of Esterhasz, whose clunky script is little more than a collection of clichés (the maverick cop meets the femme fatale) that utilises dialogue reliant storytelling more befitting a TV cop show than a Hollywood blockbuster. It may be set in San Francisco and feature an enigmatic blonde who likes to wear white, but that's where the Vertigo comparisons should end. There's nothing Hitchcockian about Basic Instinct, which is a whodunit, Hitch's least favourite mode of storytelling, and for all its swooping steadicam it's barely cinematic.

basic instinct review

Esterhasz's story is as old as the San Francisco hills. A troubled police detective, Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), recently cleared of killing two tourists who got in his line of fire, investigates the murder of a record producer. His primary suspect is Catherine Tramell (Stone), a wealthy psychiatrist/novelist who was the dead man's lover. Nick has no real evidence against Catherine, save for the fact that one of her novels features a woman murdering her lover with an ice pick, the very same weapon used in the killing of the producer.


I suspect it's this aspect that attracted Verhoeven. This was an era when writers, filmmakers and musicians were scapegoated by the media as being responsible for the corruption of the western world. Every time some lunatic shot up a McDonalds, conservative and liberal media outlets united in blaming violent movies, horror novels and Heavy Metal. In reality, it was respected authority figures like priests, politicians and policemen who were the real sickos. Basic Instinct latches onto this idea, commenting on the hypocrisy of the era in this regard. When Nick arrives on the murder scene he tut tuts at the cocaine found in the room, but we later learn that he had a coke problem of his own. The film is ambiguous regarding Catherine's guilt, but it plays far more thematically interesting if you view it as an innocent woman having fun ruffling the feathers of a bunch of squares who have condemned her simply because she writes nasty books and is proudly sexually promiscuous. She knows she hasn't done anything wrong and turns the tables on Nick, who could be viewed as the film's antagonist. Nick is a hypocrite who assumes the moral high ground, yet he's killed four people in the last five years alone, and isn't above sexually assaulting his on/off lover, police psychologist Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn).



But as I said, this is a frustrating film and its most annoying element is the coda that makes such a read difficult. After Catherine has seemingly been cleared of the murder, we end with a scene of her making love with Nick. After rolling off his sweaty body she appears to reach for something beside the bed, only to then embrace a nervous Nick before the movie fades to black. That's a perfect ending that seems to confirm Catherine's innocence and allows us to view Basic Instinct as the story of an intelligent, educated libertine poking the bear of mainstream American morality. But then we cut back to a shot of the camera panning down beneath the bed, where an ice pick lies in wait. Ugh. Why the previous fade to black though? Why not just pan down to the offending weapon in one continuous shot? Is this Verhoeven's way of telling us that he doesn't approve of an ending likely tacked on to tease a sequel (which would finally arrive as late as 2006, but the less said about that the better)?

basic instinct review

At the time, Sharon Stone's name was considered a byword for bad acting, which seems preposterous now. While she hasn't exactly set the screen alight since, in Basic Instinct she's nothing short of fantastic, taking a clichéd archetype and turning her into an icon. Her biggest previous role had come in Verhoeven's Total Recall and here the Dutch provocateur latches onto her as a cipher for his own cheeky ways. As we watch Stone's Catherine make a bunch of middle-aged men uncomfortable in THAT interrogation, it's impossible not to think of the scene as emblematic of Verhoeven's Hollywood career, a self-confessed European sleazebag relishing playing America's external prudishness and internal perversions off one another.

With Basic Instinct and later Showgirls, Verhoeven satirises America's hypocrisy when it comes to sex in the same way he used Robocop and Starship Troopers to comment on his adopted country's near-fascistic obsession with authoritarian power. On the surface it's little more than a slick erotic thriller, but look under the bed and you'll find Verhoeven wielding a sharp weapon of his own.
Extras:

Two feature commentaries - one by Paul Verhoeven and cinematographer Jan de Bont, one by Camille Paglia; a new retrospective documentary; three featurettes; screen tests; storyboard comparisons; new trailer.

Basic Instinct is on 4k Ultra HD, blu-ray and DVD from Studiocanal from June 14th.