Joe Eszterhas, at the height of his power and world-damaging, rampaging misogyny in 1992, gifts Basic Instinct with an absolutely torrid, huffing, wheezing, terrible screenplay. This much cannot be denied. Everything about the screenplay insists and states that which it could have implied, adds in unnecessary and morally offensive complication whenever it can, and generally lives by the motto “why say something better when we can say it more?” It is a bottom-feeding early ’90s erotic thriller screenplay if ever there was one, indulging in the stupidest amounts of shoddy characterization and faux-drama it possibly can. It is as if he lost a bet and had to write it and market it against his will. Except, of course, Joe Eszterhas doesn’t seem to have a kind view of women, let alone lesbian women, and, from his other screenplays, we can assume he loved damn near every word of his oppressive money-maker.
The problem, and I cannot say whether it is a problem for good or ill: Paul Verhoeven is on tap as director, and Paul Verhoeven loves a terrible screenplay. He loves what he can do with a terrible screenplay. In this case, that involved both adapting it with remarkable clarity to capture the essence of Eszerthas’ vision, whilst simultaneously destroying the whole cloth of the script and accentuating its horrid qualities while affording it no saving graces whatsoever. Eszterhas’ story, about washed-up detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) falling afoul of lesbian murder-fiction writer Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), who it is presumed murdered a local rock ‘n’ roll musician because she wrote a book featuring a similar murder (killed by an ice pick, he was) and she slept with him for over a year while researching for her book. Soon enough Nick falls for her, and the two begin what Eszterhas would like us to call a “cat-and-mouse game” as they hide and reveal to each other, seemingly every minute, some new facet of random detail or nonsensical nothing. See, he knows that she’s the murderer but is falling into her trap. Or something like that. Again, colossally bad.
I can not tell whether Paul Verhoeven realized that the screenplay was awful, but the bent of his other films tell us he did. After-all, he came to this project after directing two of the finest action film satires of the late ’80s and early ’90s, Robocop and Total Recall, and he would go on to direct the criminally misunderstood Showgirls, which would take what is one display in Basic Instinct and accentuate its hidden self-critique even more (another Eszterhas script, that one). His second to last American film, Starship Troopers, is an almost entirely out-in-the-open bludgeon against American military pseudo-fascism and corporate violence in the fiction world. It is a work that was, after the critical misfire of Showgirls, probably too keen to let its satire be widely known (which ultimately makes it less interesting, for it is Verhoeven’s most obvious film by far), but it is still a rollicking critique all the same.
Knowing Verhoeven’s history forces our eyes to the nether regions of Verhoeven’s camera here, to the way that he directs the final scene between Douglas and Stone as an operatic crescendo of unearned suspense and an almost parodic level of false fake-outs and obvious double-takes. Or the way he generally films Douglas (giving the platonic ideal of a Michael Douglas performance) as a thug-like alpha American male totally unaware of his age.
On this last point: if the screenplay on paper sympathizes with Curran, the film does not. Or at least, it doesn’t want to. There’s a definite clash between paper and celluloid here, but the staging and the lighting work to make Douglas look like a garish wax monster, and the staging of the sex scene between him and his psychiatrist (a rape that the screenplay insists is not) makes him look like an abusive brute who can’t much do anything except force himself onto women as a result of having his male identity royally screwed with by Tramell. The dissection of male identity is a broad-side in the film, but it is almost all in the finished product, and not in the screenplay. On paper, it’s easy to see Curran as the noirish hero ever-struggling to cope with his fall from grace, stranded in a sea of succubi women who see it their life’s goal to confuse other men into thinking he is a failure. But Verhoeven directs him as an unsympathetic loser whose life force is torn out not by Tramell but by himself.
Similarly, Tramell is a vile, detached ice queen on paper, but Stone’s alien performance suggests her awareness of the problems with the depiction of the character. It also reveals her commanding desire to thoroughly destroy the image from the ground up by rendering it a gross parody of the idea of a femme-fatale more than a real one. In here, more than anywhere else, we see the anti-melodrama melodrama of Verhoeven’s style waxing ever fuller. What he has done for action cinema, he here does for the noir: read the genre past itself to render its eccentricities and loopholes all the more obvious, and to air out its dirty secrets by placing them out in the open.
It doesn’t quite “work”, for the film is not a cohesive statement against the nihilism of film noir and its implicit endorsement of maledom at the expense of women who desperately desire to destroy men (very much the core of a good portion of the classic corpus of the genre). Rather, Basic Instinct is an inconstant statement, a work in perpetual free-fall and tightly coiled tension with itself. The finished work both conforms deeply to the“everyone is a villain” erotic thriller qualities of the early ’90s we might expect, and subtly pokes holes in this very idea. It is an adamant mess of a film, and a work that earns none of its drama but is absolutely impeccable as a construct, filmed and edited for maximum impact and bathed in a sort of soft Old Hollywood lighting to give it a classical luster. Until the lighting exaggerates itself and makes the characters look like the musty old cliches they are, making fun of the way that these early ’90s erotic thrills generally didn’t know what the hell they were doing when they tackled film noir. Verhoeven has as much fun toying with the visual language of the thriller here as any director has, and even when the film is fundamentally at odds with itself it’s always exciting to witness him have his way with the film in the meantime.
Even when he is just shocking the audiences, and this is often the case, there’s a distinctly Verhoevenian sense that he’s bludgeoning us by explicitly showing us what is implicit in so many other films. Or rather, so many erotic thrillers focus on implying and dancing around sex and violence, but they are so interested in covering things up to maintain the allure of respect. This is how we arrive at Gone Girl in 2014; these films are deathly afraid of ever being honest that they are essentially trash. Verhoeven loves trash, and he responds to American audiences by picking us up and throwing us into the dumpster. Until him, we had been peering in, looking at the filth from a distance whilst pretending we were actually looking at the gorgeous line of pine trees in the distance behind the festering landfill. Verhoeven doesn’t like it when American audiences lie to themselves, so he gives us what we were really looking for, but too much of it, so much of it, right out in the open, so that it burns.
Basic Instinct may be the prime argument for Verhoeven as one of the few genuinely post-structuralist filmmakers of the modern era, something largely assured by one important transition: where-as in his previous films Robocop and Total Recall Verhoeven was mocking good movies, here (and in his next two films which were genuinely not well-received but have since been reevaluated post-release, Showgirls and Starship Troopers) he is accentuating the way in which he is critiquing bad films. It is this transition, I think, which also changed his critical fortunes, for it is a more difficult sell; while his previous two action films were cutting ribs at corporate culture that were also genuinely good action films, Basic Instinct is an abrasive, contentious affair that is very much aware that it is a bad film, and it rubs our noses in it (as well as the noses of most of its participants). It is a film very much about how fake and stupid it is, where-as Total Recall, for instance, was a film about how fake and genuinely good it was. If his previous two films were about how fun films could be when they accentuated their silly and exaggerated qualities, Basic Instinct is an attack dog aimed at itself. And the audience.
A key difference between Basic Instinct and most other films, specifically satires, is this: most films that critique cinema, or anything, do so by discussing the inherent subjectivity of other films or the object of critique. They look at how those other films or those other objects are wrong/fake. In doing so, they inevitably inoculate themselves by positioning themselves as superior, as the true objectivity and the rational critique of those other things which are subjective and fake. This is a simple, cut-and-dry case for many: a film that is smart because it points out the ways in which it is better than other films essentially tells an audience why it is itself better than all those other films, and thus likable.
Basic Instinct is not one of these films. It is not about all those other films that are stupid and fake, but about films that are stupid and fake. As in this film. It does not mock other erotic thrillers. It demonstrates to them, by being one of them itself, what their falsities are, how immoral they are. And by definition it itself must be stupid and immoral. It is these two things, but it is trenchantly and astoundingly aware of its stupidity and immorality. It treats itself not as a film which makes a statement about other films but a film that is a statement about other films in itself. It is remarkably self-critical, an immanent critique of a genre that strives not to separate itself from that genre but to become it, and in doing so, to expose it for its own immorality. It is satire by way of careful, immanent, unblinking study and recreation. Not a film that comments on other films from a safe, separate, satirical distance. Rather, it breaks down the false dichotomy between satire of an object and the object itself, becoming a work that doesn’t simply superficially dialogue about other films when it feels like it, a la Scream. Instead, it takes the time to ensure its whole filmic identity – from the edits to the shots to the performances – is a dialogue, a commentary, about other films. It is not a film that critiques, but a film that is a critique.
Now, I will be very careful here: this does not morally excuse the film. Verhoeven treats his films as objects that indict his audience. And while it seems somewhat patently obvious that he knows this film is immoral, illicit, and idiotic, a hefty portion of the audience may miss this entirely, and this is problematic. If Verhoeven is playing a private joke on his audience, and thus thinks his audience is a collective idiot, he must assume they might miss his true intent, and he thus must have known he is essentially making a film which the large majority of the audience may actually take seriously, and even “like” seriously. Since this is a film in which the entire narrative thrust eroticizes and otherizes lesbianism in equal measure and essentially paints lesbians as psychotic madwomen who are matched in their promiscuity only by their obsessive dementedness, it is not good that Verhoeven made it knowing that many people might take up its message or support it.
I should not have to say it: that ain’t cool. Basic Instinct is a film about the fact that it isn’t cool, that it is a tired, washed-up carcass of film history dragged painstakingly into the modern era through half-assed scripting gestures like the purple-and-blue neon club (the de facto early ’90s color-scheme) and its employment of homosexuality to titillate and eroticize a depressingly lame narrative, rather to actually do anything with sexuality as a concept. It is a thoroughly transgressive experience, using stereotypes to abuse stereotypes. Yet that doesn’t mean everything will think it to be so. That’s a depressing fact, and the age-old question of morality vs. art rears its head yet again. I do not know whether Verhoeven should be excused for the joke he plays on his audience. But he is absolutely in on it. Whether that makes it better or worse is hard to say, but it certainly makes the film fascinating, giddy, confrontational, and even essential viewing.
What I will say for certain: Basic Instinct is a more sedate version of Verhoeven’s next film, a work that most consider to be his worst, a select few believe is his masterpiece, and is generally his most fascinating American film to experience. Like all of his films, and like this one, it is a work in perpetual tension with itself, a satire of something that it also acknowledges it is, and a garish, corpulent, operatic mess of a film. It is one of the most infamous films ever made, and it is, in spite of what many think, totally Verhoeven. I cannot wait…