This holiday weekend, IFC Center‘s Paul Verhoeven series continues with midnight screenings of Basic Instinct on Friday, Saturday and, because of the following day’s holiday, Sunday too—Valentine’s Day.
“The scripts that really interest me are a little bit edgy and have a little tension between the audience and the film itself.” -Paul Verhoeven
The infamy campaign that made Basic Instinct such a box office success had so over-familiarized me with that crotch shot that I hadn’t bothered to actually see the film until recently. I didn’t know it was one of the best films of the last few decades. (Actually good, not the curiosity that Showgirls is, at best.)
Basic Instinct is a real movie movie; it’s got the full package:
1. It creates its own dreamy reality, improbable but unquestioned while the viewer is along for the ride. Verhoeven uses overlarge houses, crazy dappled lighting effects and every natural element he can wrangle— rain, fire, and the Pacific Ocean—to make a gorgeous, nonsense otherworld.
2. At the same time, Verhoeven uses extraordinarily fine realistic details throughout this high-strung film noir structure, which add to the complexity of the characters. And the actors come through beautifully, with performances both ridiculous and moving. Douglas as a desperate cop with bad habits is especially explosive, but Sharon Stone plays her femme fatale character just right, as a phantom.
3. Most crucially, it’s a good film because the film is smarter than the filmmakers. Verhoeven allows the film to be more nuanced than his own intentions.
Basic Instinct is also one of the greatest feminist films of the last fifty years. Like feminist masterpiece Gentlemen Prefer Blondes starring Marilyn Monroe, it nails the fact that attraction is, not a base instinct, but a form of intelligence. Not that the cerebral is the ultimate turn-on, but that knowing how to turn someone on is mental; it takes sensitivity, psychology and imagination. Jeanne Tripplehorn is gorgeous, arguably even better looking than Sharon Stone, but her needy girlfriend and house-call shrink character is a drip. She’s anti-sexy. Verhoeven adds a few moments (not in the script) when she and Douglas first enter her apartment, after a passionate confrontation at a bar, in which she slumps in and hangs up her coat and puts away her keys, as she obviously has a thousand times before, so heavy with boredom that when Michael Douglas suddenly slams her against the wall, it’s a relief. She plays along to please him but she’s absent from his passion. Sharon Stone, on the other hand, is a genius at getting inside his head. And so he’s hooked.
But the film is a tragedy. The power of sexual intelligence is frightening to men who are less man than Douglas, so Stone’s Catherine Tramell character is demonized. As Douglas’ cowboy companion states so succinctly and indelibly, “Well, she got that magna cum laude pussy on her that done fried up your brain!” And those femme fatale eye-goggles are not easily removed, not by Douglas or even by Catherine Tramell herself. As she becomes more vulnerable, she distances herself from internalizing this ugly caricature by wearing it all too well, as a disguise. Or does she?? Maybe as his need for her grows, he can’t help but imagine she’s that way. Is she evil? Yes and at the same time no. The genius of the film is that all these views are true. The various biases of the filmmakers and viewers for and against this woman are all fine-tuned and emphasized brilliantly, in broad short strokes, but layered so these opposing views overlap. While Vertigo, which Verhoeven quotes liberally, is a carefully accomplished deep spiraling of narrative possibilities, Basic Instinct is like a holographic crystal of points-of-view. As Verhoeven said in the same interview quoted above, “Four of the six movies I made in Hollywood are science-fiction oriented, and even Basic Instinct is kind of science fiction.” It’s a science-fiction rendering of film noir psychology.