Erotic thrillers have never had much by way of credibility. They have a reputation for being cheesy, lurid and sleazy, and are often lumped together with horror movies as the stuff that 'sensible', 'reasonable' citizens wouldn't touch with a twenty-foot pole. But as with horror, some erotic thrillers manage to explore interesting, often edgy ideas in amidst the gratuitous sex scenes and clunky dialogue. Basic Instinct is one such film.
Although the groundwork had been laid by Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct was the film which brought the erotic thriller into the mainstream. The controversy surrounding its R rating in America and misplaced allegations of homophobia created a whirlwind of publicity, which catapulted Sharon Stone to short-lived stardom and made an entire generation give in to guilty pleasure, if only for a couple of hours.
In bringing the erotic thriller to the multiplex, there is surprisingly little attempt on the part of anyone to sanitise the content, or make changes that would make the story less cheesy. The opening 20 minutes are pure cheese, as people take their clothes off with abandon, detectives trudge around in dark suits, and Catherine Tramell sashays around delivering every line like it's a turn-on. Joe Eszterhas' script is chock full of absurd one-liners that would have made Greg Dark proud - the best being the detectives' remark that the first victim "got off before he got offed".
As well as being everything you'd expect from an erotic thriller, Basic Instinct is everything you'd expect from a Paul Verhoeven film - it's sleazy, trashy, cheesy, and quite good fun. Verhoeven was in his commercial prime, having made a splash with Robocop and Total Recall, and had explored sexual crime previously in The 4th Man. Basic Instinct may have opened the floodgates for a wave of worse films, from the Demi Moore vehicle Striptease to William Friedkin's Jade, but outside of its legacy it is a smarter film than has often been assumed.
As with Total Recall, Basic Instinct begins with a big shock to separate the men from the boys. During the opening credits, with Jerry Goldsmith's eerie soundtrack and the movements in mirrored glass, we see the name of Rob Bottin - the make-up artist who did the effects on Total Recall and The Thing. His presence perplexes us: why would an erotic thriller need its own special effects boffin? Then you see the killer's ice pick go through the face and neck of Johnny Boz, and you sit there frozen to the spot, with no further questions.
Basic Instinct is a deeply stylised film, which never feels the need to be visually realistic if a creative decision would enhance the mood of a given scene. In the famous interrogation scene, Verhoeven's long-time collaborator Jan de Bont lights the bunker-like room very unusually. Instead of having both parties in equal amounts of light, Catherine Tramell is lit in blinding white light coming from the floor, while the detectives are shrouded in darkness. This gives things a prominent noir feel while conveying the theme of women being in control: the detectives become like voyeurs, wishing to gaze longingly at Catherine without showing too much of their faces.
This scene brings on to one of the big talking points in Basic Instinct, namely the gratuitous nudity. We know what to expect up to a point: it wouldn't be an erotic thriller without some flesh, and the film is helmed by the man who left teenage boys drooling at the sight of a three-breasted woman from Mars. But even by those standards, the level of sex or nudity is way over-the-top. The film may not be totally exploitative in its treatment or depiction of women, but it does tip over into base titillation in several scenes. The moment where Sharon Stone crosses her legs is pure exploitation: to all those in denial, it's clearly not her thigh showing up on screen!
Like many attempts to bring something inherently trashy or silly into the mainstream, the story of Basic Instinct is contrived to the point of being ridiculous. The most obvious example of this is the level of intuition which Catherine Tramell possesses: it's one thing being able to guess what someone is going to say, but always being in the same place as the detective is a whole different matter. In its action moments it often gets completely silly, asking us to believe that Michael Douglas could participate in a high-speed chase only seconds after being knocked down by a car.
It will be clear by now that Basic Instinct is not a film for the faint-hearted, either in its full-on visual style or its blatant disregard for narrative cohesion. But once we have gotten past the sleaze, and the violence, and the smoking, and the swearing, and the silly action scenes, we do begin to see something going on beneath the surface, which turns into that kernel of substance buried deep in the heart of Verhoeven's work.
All of Verhoeven's films are essentially about questions of identity. In Robocop, how much is Murphy still a man and how much is he a machine? In Total Recall, has Quaid really been to Mars, or is the whole thing an implant? In Basic Instinct, the question revolves around Catherine Tramell and the motivations behind her unusual behaviour. Is she purely and simply the Devil, who taunts men for sport and uses her books to cover up her brutal murders? Or is she someone with a warped mind who is caught up in these events, someone who craves attention but has no desire to kill for it?
The wanton nature of the character is designed not merely to titillate, but to explore - albeit broadly - the sexual independence of women. Catherine doesn't need men to control her or define her in any way, and her actions are not motivated by a direct Freudian urge, e.g. craving affection to make up for the fact that Daddy showed her none. She treats men and women equally as playthings, taking the dominant role in every relationship.
This brings us on to the position of gay and lesbian groups, who used the film to attack what they perceived as Hollywood homophobia. The film may be clichéd in its depiction of lesbianism or bisexuality on an aesthetic level - all the lesbians in the film are still dolled-up and attractive enough to make them naturally appealing to men. But Basic Instinct is not homophobic in its view of sexual preference as a lifestyle choice. It maturely chooses not to make an issue of Catherine's sexuality; in other words, who she sleeps with has no direct bearing on whom or why she kills.
The film borrows heavily from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, with Verhoeven restaging certain sections involving the Golden Gate Bridge or the various steep staircases. There is a close parallel between the characters, with Michael Douglas being driven to obsession and Sharon Stone harbouring some kind of self-destructive impulse. One could say this is what a Hitchcock film would have looked like had such levels of sex and violence been acceptable in the 1950s.
In the end, however, Verhoeven's efforts to keep things totally ambiguous don't quite work as well as in Total Recall. While there are moments in which it is reasonable to believe that Catherine isn't completely insane, the final act in which Beth Garner is 'revealed' as the killer feels too contrived to cut the mustard. Jeanne Tripplehorn's character has been so peripheral up until this point that we never really believe she could have done it, even if all the plot points add up.
While it never reaches the heights of The 4th Man or Verhoeven's previous Hollywood efforts, Basic Instinct remains an enjoyable thriller which manages to raise a number of intelligent issues even in its most lurid moments. It has more than its share of problems, either relating to its plot or the inherent cheesiness of the erotic thriller genre. But as a guilty pleasure or something a little smarter than you'd think, it demonstrates that, once in a while, embracing trash is not such a bad thing.