Let’s start with the obvious. Yes, this is the movie you heard about where Sharon Stone shows her “between me down there.” Yes, this movie did start riots with gay rights activists claiming that the Sharon Stone character in question was a toxic bisexual. That’s what this movie is. What it isn’t is boring.
Michael Douglas plays a washed up, recovering-(ish) alcoholic and drug addict named Nick who is assigned to investigate Sharon Stone’s seductive novelist, Catherine Tramell. That’s about all you need to know as far as the plot goes. As he follows her in “Vertigo” esc car chases and tosses around “Rear Window” esc backyard leers, he becomes more and more transfixed by this intelligent enigma’s potentially problematic charms. “Potentially problematic charms” you ask? Well, it’s highly likely that Tramell is intricately responsible for, not one, but several murders. Moreover, even if she isn’t directly involved, the web she weaves certainly connects to a lot of drained corpses.
Paul Verhoeven doesn’t seem at all concerned with what screenwriter Joe Eszterhas put onto the page. The script is rooting for Nick, asking us to worry about his predicament and feel the pain of character deformity ala- “Scarface.” The tragic downfall of a deeply flawed man who is, as Catherine says, “in over his head,” seems to be what’s served. The thing is, that isn’t what we dine on. We’re not tracing the web to solve something. We’re balancing on the thread trying to keep up with the sexy spider.
The dish delectable here is composed of the angles Verhoeven strikes and the acting choices Stone makes. The story may be about Nick, but our eyes, along with Nick’s eyes for that matter, are fixated on Catherine. Sharon Stone doesn’t play the femme fatale in Nick’s noir. She plays the dark witch in Verhoeven’s San Francisco fantasy, and we are all under her spell.
The movie isn’t about anything beyond the way it feels, which is why I wasn’t put off by any of the extreme violence, sexism, queer/gender obtuseness, luridness, or unbelievability. At no point did I get the sense that Verhoeven was asking us to take Eszterhas’ warnings about female/gay empowerment or sexuality seriously. A good way to think about this is to cast the script as another one of the sweating, threatened, and uncomfortable men in the movie’s best scene: the police interrogation. Catherine Tramell is being questioned on suspicions that she murdered her studly boyfriend, and yet she remains in control. Her manipulation isn’t menacing or even particularly sinister though. It’s fun! Catherine plays to win in a room full of testosterone expectations of her estrogen, and we feel deviously playful alongside her. This is why the movie is such a thrill ride! You never stop wanting to game on with Catherine.
Nick is taken in by every inch of Tramell’s steely serenity, and we as the audience salivate that more and more of her calamity will befall him. The grimier he gets, the more we’re into it. His experience is really an elaborate flogging, and Catherine invites us all to watch. There’s no shame in accepting your voyeur badge, because that’s the position Verhoeven takes with every scene. We never feel sorry for Nick. While in some cases, this might indicate a flawed narrative or unappealing character, in “Basic Instinct,” Nick being so detestable at every mistake-filled turn is part of the movie’s charm. Whether Tramell killed anyone is irrelevant. We know she’s bad news, but we’re buying what she’s selling anyway. Nick is the proverbial child putting his tongue on the pancake burner, and we can vicariously shake our fingers at him.
The movie is interested in themes of sadism and masochism, and it understands the power balance of dominant and submissive better than most movies of the time. Things start with the seeming paragon of male sexuality, a rock star, being bound and penetrated by his female presenting sexual conquest. The movie ends with a bunch of exasperated, worn out (mostly male identifying) cops accepting their lack of control. From the police headquarters leg cross and on, Catherine remains in control of the narrative. She’s writing her next sex trash novel, and we are watching her write it with wide open eyes. All men who come into contact with Tramell are just tertiary characters on her working page who will serve some small purpose or get killed off. Since this is a movie about nothing, we get to relish this hyperbolic and symbolic experience of a marginalized individual punishing their oppressors without ever having to accept her as a heroine. There are no heroes in this city.