A 1992 movie directed by Paul Verhoeven
and starring Sharon Stone
, Michael Douglas
and Jeanne Tripplehorn.
Famous (or infamous) for Stone's brutal, leg-opening portrayal of a very smart, very rich bi-sexual writer being investigated for the murder of a rock
legend. Douglas, with a propensity for starring in movies where gorgeous women stalk him (see Fatal Attraction
), is a haggard, "fucked-up" cop following Catherine Tramell (Stone's character) and- willingly- gets tied up in her little web
of dangerous games.
Saturated with sex and violence, the movie proved quite controversial when it first arrived in theaters in 1992. Gay rights groups were a bit miffed about Tramell being a psychotic bi-sexual.. But Verhoeven has never shied from over-the-top sex'n'gore, seeing as other films of his include the ever-blecky "Showgirls," as well as "Robocop," a movie which scared the Cherrios out of me when I was 10. Jerry Goldsmith did the score to Basic Instinct, and it is an excellent one at that.
This movie has gained a modest amount of popularity over the years. The attractively-shot film, combined with a fairly decent who-done-it plot and the afore-mentioned gratuitous footage, makes for a pretty interesting viewing. The movie is a definite shame to those who long for a better portrayal of women in film, however. To Catherine Tramell, money is no object, but she most certainly is.
The director's cut of Basic Instinct includes a bit more gore in the opening murder scene (Eww! An eye popped out of the dude's skull!) and a little more camera lingering when Douglas visit's Stone's nether region during their first of many sex scenes. The ending is a controversial one, as well.
I have not spoiled the ending. This is where those who have not seen it may choose to stop perusal.
Basic Instinct, despite its underlying misogynism, is a fascinating movie in several aspects. I find it a lovely example of film noir—- a classic genre more popular in the early 20th century. Not simply because it’s a dark mystery with a femme fatale. Douglas plays a haggard, morose cop with an array of questionable activities checkering his past. (drinking, cocaine, accidentally shooting innocent people…) Stone, of course, is the bella bitch, and Jeanne Tripplehorn is the good girl; the dichotomy of the females is in classic noir fashion, and Douglas will have to choose between the two. Following noir fashion, of course, he will make the poor decision. Other noir bits: dark and rainy evenings, lots o’smoking, gloomy apartments and low-key lighting galore.
That being said, the film also offers an interesting study on traditional gender roles and female stereotypes characteristically shown in movies since their beginning. Elayne Rapping wrote in an essay called The Movie of the Week, “film traditionally assumes a ‘male gaze,’ that the implied audience is the male moviegoer who is assumed to identify with the male hero and to view the female protagonist as object, not subject.” Therefore, often times in film, the roles of women are being defined by what males find appealing. I think Basic Instinct demonstrates this quite blatantly.
“When you find a good story or character that allows you to expose those areas (the shadowy side of humanity) I like it.” -–Michael Douglas in an interview about the movie.
The movie begins with a brutal murder during sexual intercourse—the ultimate sinful combination. A shadowy figure of a naked blonde female stabs a man she’s having sex with numerous times with an ice pick. After this, the movie focuses in on hardboiled detective Nick Curan, who seeks to find the murderer of the man. Nick and his partner Gus meet and grill the prime suspect, Catherine Tramell. Catherine is an extremely smart, beautiful blonde heiress. Possessing an evil yet seductive glare she pursues Nick, and she eventually turns out to be a bisexual with a passion for “rough edges” (she cuts all of her ice skillfully with an ice pick.)
Nick in the meantime is also seeing Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), a kind, attractive psychologist working for the police. Essentially, Beth portrays the good girl. Nick slowly becomes drawn into Catherine’s dangerous world during the investigation, and eventually several people end up getting killed in the process. His partner Gus, Catherine’s girlfriend Roxy, another cop, and his love interest Beth. (With the exception of Roxy, all of the people killed were good.) In the end, Beth is thought to have been the murderer when Catherine was actually the guilty one.
“I have to seduce him (Nick) with my mind and my sexuality. I have to weave this web that he cannot pull out of.” -– Sharon Stone about the film.
Catherine takes the role of the beautiful but evil seductress with blonde hair and blue eyes, white and "perfect"—- except for the psychotic part. But her proclivity to murder does not prove too important when it comes to physical appeal for the male viewer. This stereotypical beauty image is employed often by the media simply because it draws a man’s attention. Sharon Stone, regardless of her character’s insanity, works as the Hollywood industry’s cash cow because her naked body brings in the money. The prevalence of this type of image reinforces the idea that women should be as gorgeous, thin, and as white as Sharon Stone, and the underlying message in this particular character says that if a woman is dominating or aggressive, she must be evil.
Nick appears as the stereotypical white male hero who “always falls for the wrong dame.” The male viewer is supposed to sympathize with this depressed cop with a dead wife and a drug problem. Nick looks like the good guy when he actually rapes his girlfriend Beth in one scene and then kills her in the end. This stereotypical macho male is used because it appeals to men through “masculine identity validation,” as Jackson Katz discusses in her essay Advertising and the Construction of Violent White Masculinity. Men can vicariously achieve and assert their “manhood” through an image like Nick Curran on the screen, when in truth the character only reinforces the erroneous idea that men only follow their penises, no matter what the consequences are.
Beth fits into the stereotypical “good girl” role as a submissive white female. Of course she’s a thin gorgeous brunette, but she’s also the gal with a heart of gold who accepts being dominated and raped by her lover. This type constantly appears on screen as a demonstration of what is expected from a woman. The typical identity given to females is that of the sweet and submissive—- it has been for so many years that this stereotype can be used over and over without much question. However, this portrayal damages the female gender by making a nice smart girl look powerless and pathetic.
What also proves doubly decadent about this movie was the fact that the murderer does not get caught. The evil female, glamorized until the very end as a murdering, cocaine-loving smoker (the tobacco industry adores this film I’m sure), achieves her goal, while the good girl gets shot and killed. Yet another harsh way of putting it: The blonde wins and the brunette loses. The movie manages to glamorize murder not only by making it look cool, sneaky and sexy, but by not punishing the killer.
The DVD of this movie contains a wonderful feature- a commentary by feminist critic Camille Paglia. I was somewhat surprised to hear her say it was one of her favorite movies at the start, and she explains her point of view during the course of the commentary. She saw Catherine Trammell more positively because of her brains and power to manipulate. Paglia thought that a woman’s ability to dominate through both her mind and her sexuality is a good thing, and that it should be celebrated as it is in Instinct. While I could see her point, I still think it could be demonstrated in a better format. Hollywood certainly needs to show more dominating women sans the psychotic killer aspect, no? (To Die For-- tsk tsk … Out of Sight-- hoorah)
Paglia also made great observation concerning the symbolism of two Picasso paintings briefly noted early on the movie—the hard lines and striking visuals of the works are apparent in the movie as well. Also to be thought about is Pablo Picasso himself: His own views of women and the way he treated women in his life.
Whether one considers Basic Instinct good or bad, it's a movie worth studying. I will say that as of now, it is Verhoeven's best output by far.