Synopsis: Michael Douglas stars as Nick Curran, a tough but vulnerable detective. Sharon Stone co-stars as Catherine Tramell, a cold, calculating and beautiful novelist with an insatiable sexual appetite. Catherine becomes a prime suspect when her boyfriend is brutally murdered – a crime described in her latest novel. Obsessed with cracking the case, Nick descends into San Francisco’s forbidden underground where suspicions mount, bodies fall and he finds within himself an instinct more basic than survival.
Basic Instinct 8.25
Nick: “You like playing games don’t you?”
Catherine: “I have a degree in psychology, it goes with the turf… Games are fun.”
If any thriller has played a huge part for me in the past, ‘Basic Instinct’ did. It was 1991 and, while I had seen a fair number of films by then, I was only just getting to explore more mature themes – for instance, I saw ‘Goodfellas’, as well ‘1984’ and ‘Jacob’s Ladder’, during that period.
My friends and I watched it over and over and over again. And not just at the cinema, either. I first bought it on VHS, then on laserdisc, then on DVD, then on Special Edition DVD, and have since been given the BD by a friend with whom I bonded over the film with – he and I made it a staple of our visits for a few years.
While he ended up watching it countless dozens of times, I “only” saw it 15-20 times. Which, admittedly, is already a lot.
This over-exposure may account for my current rating, which is the lowest it’s been since I first saw the picture in 1991 and for the fact that, by the time I bought the second DVD, I could only watch it the one time and shelve it for future reference. Heck, even Jerry Goldsmith’s motion picture score, which once played incessantly, has been gathering dust these past few years.
But watching ‘Zwartboek’ inspired me to return to my “formative” years, and I decided to bridge the gap in my sexy films fiesta with this classic psychological thriller. It certainly fit the bill: after all, if any movie shaped the way erotica and suspense were blended together, Paul Verhoeven and Joe Ezterhas’ twisted creation did.
For years, Sharon Stone seemed like perfect woman to me (even if her character was the anti-thesis on so many levels): natural-looking but glamourous, taut but sensual, intense but playful – and smart as a whip to boot. I would avidly pick up any film she made for the next 6 or 7 years – until approximately 1998, when she essentially ran out of choice parts to play.
The reason of Tramell’s appeal was her mix of sharpness and sexiness:
-On the one hand, she would out-think all of her opponents, manipulating everything years in advance – as she planned out her crimes in a methodical, all-too-premeditated fashion. Oh sure, she used her mind for evil. But intelligence is still seductive – even if, as it is in this case, it’s dangerous and seductive.
-On the other hand, she was beautiful enough that men and women alike found her appealing (I remember a female friend of mine cooing about her legs). But she wasn’t just attractive, she also had a voracious appetite for sexual pleasures of all kinds. So watching her in motion, breathtakingly calculating yet earthy, was quite the sexy treat.
Catherine Tramell was the second non-conformist (one might even argue “feminist”), female character that resonated with me, after ‘Terminator 2’s Sarah Connor – the difference being that, while Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor was physically robust and mentally focused, Stone’s Catherine Tramell was mentally acute and physically seductive. Basically, Connor was a machine, whereas Tramel was a lioness.
Sharon Stone was perfectly cast in the role. Apparently, the first choice was Kim Basinger, who thankfully (not because I dislike her, but because she’s too meek)) declined and was followed by a series of celebrities of various stature, including Demi Moore. Stone was not the first choice, but she was the ideal candidate, in my estimation: not only was it was a career-defining moment for her, but there’s no denying the fact that she is the film’s strongest asset.
And yet the whole cast was terrific. Michael Douglas (who seemed to have aged dramatically since his ‘Romancing the Stone’ days), was well-suited for the part of a cop on edge, George Dzunza brought the right amount of blue collar smarts and loveability to his character, and Jeanne Tripplehorn was offbeat enough that it made one wonder if her character was mentally stable, if she could be the villain (that one scene when she’s all smiles in front of Douglas and then her face goes blank when he leaves, was utterly chilling ).
What makes ‘Basic Instinct’ so enjoyable is that it leaves so many wide open spaces between the connected dots that one can’t help but wonder if Tramell is actually behind the murders, or, if she is, if she did it alone. Everything points to her, and she even refuses to explicitly deny that she’s guilty, but there is also a dearth of incriminating evidence. Furthermore, there are so many peculiar -if not conflicted- characters involved with her and/or the case, that it all blurs the lines.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
Even that final shot of an ice pick suggests that something’s amiss, that Catherine may not have been the killer all along: the ice pick that we see at the end is of a completely different make from all the others. This suggests that Tramell was intending murder all along, but that the ones we saw so far were not her doing whatsoever and that she ultimately never went through with the one she had planned – the murder of the cop on her case, just as in her novel.
*MAJOR spoiler alert*
If there were any issues with the film, they were directorial choices: there was the insistence on hiding the killer’s face with her hair, instead of using certain angles or lighting to hide her identity. I always wondered how she saw anything, and how annoying it must be during sex to be blinded by hair. I also found the sex far too stylized, giving it an unrealistic look; people don’t usually “perform” in this manner. And the choreography was clearly designed by men, likely for men. Still… it had its moments.
Another problem that has bothered for years are some of the obvious sound editing issues, which were likely inserted in post-production at Verhoeven’s behest, such as some of the obviously fake sound of disgust that Roxy regurgitates and the moans that Catherine emits during the dance club sequence. Not only did they sound unnatural, but there’s the small matter of having these sounds competing with club music and coming out on top. It was already louder than the dialogue, for goodness’ sake.
But, all in all, I think still that ‘Basic Instinct’ is an excellent thriller. And it has its sexy moments too. I may not have the same burning desire to watch it these days, but it will nonetheless remain an old favourite of mine for years to come. And, although the film won’t grace my TV screen as frequently as it once did, and its motion picture score no longer breathes through my speakers omnipresently, I will always have the mounted poster adorning my wall, reminding me not only of a key period in my life, but of a movie that once obsessed me as much as Catherine did Nick.
Catherine: “Killing isn’t like smoking. You can stop.”