In Basic Instinct, two of the headiest genres of the 80s and early 90s finally, totally converged – neo-noir and the erotic thriller – producing an intoxicating, ultracinematic fever dream. Both of these genres were, in their own way, nostalgic and aprotropaic – arguments for the power of cinematic spectacle in a world where cinematic experience was slowly but surely on the wane. Both of them were also the last big genres that were primarily experienced in theatres and, paradoxically, in the case of the erotic thriller, the first genre that really thrived on the direct-to-video market. You might say that the erotic thriller embodied cinema’s own industrial fears about itself at this moment, as directors crafted ever more lavish spectacles that ultimately just hastened the trend towards straight-to-video and rental spectatorship.
Basic Instinct is arguably the purest expression of this moment. Written by Joe Eszterhas, it continues Brian De Palma’s project of trying to reimagine Hitchcock for the present moment. Yet whereas De Palma transplanted Hitchcock to contemporary settings, or tried to imagine how Hitchcock might film contemporary settings, Eszterhas, and Verhoeven, aim for more of a sense of pastiche. The film opens with a Hitchcockian geometric abstraction, accompanied by a score that recalls Bernard Herrmann, and relies heavily on the beats and tics of Vertigo. Like Vertigo, Basic Instinct is set largely in San Francisco, and revolves around a disgruntled police officer, Nick Curran, played by Michael Douglas, who becomes totally obsessed with a dazzling blonde – in this case Catherine Tramell, a pulp crime writer played by Sharon Stone.
Basic Instinct also begins with the defining crime scene of the classic erotic thriller. Gradually, the opening abstractions resolve into the mirrored roof of a bedroom, directing our gaze down towards an old man who is being mounted by a blonde woman on his bed. After reaching climax, she stabs him repeatedly in the face and chest, leaving behind a crime scene that would percolate through most major erotic thrillers to come, from Body of Evidence to Jade. When Nick and the other detectives arrive, they’re presented with an old man chained to a bed, forever frozen in the midst of a perverse sexual encounter. Since the cavernous house is full of esoteric and exotic objects, the crime scene consummates the décor of the house, and the film’s own style, giving Verhoeven’s 90s sheen an inextricably perverse edge.
This crime scene concisely encapsulates the erotic thriller’s scepticism with the project of sexual liberation. While erotic thrillers generally addressed Boomer audiences who had once been part of the 70s counterculture, they did so with a new sense of fear – the fear that straight male sexuality, and the cinematic male gaze that reinforces it, had turned out to be the prime collateral damage of this liberatory moment. In other words, erotic thrillers addressed themselves to the fears of male Boomers reaching middle age, a role that Michael Douglas played perfectly, since no other actor could capture the reptilian creepiness of yuppies-in-crisis with quite the same poise or urgency. Sure enough, we learn that the victim of this opening crime was a retired rocker from the 60s – the first detectives are greeted with a blast of mid-60s rock from the stereo – cementing Curran’s own identification with the case.
The entire film now stems out from this crime scene, which suggests that men have suffered a profound violence at the hands of sexual liberation – or that sexual liberation itself is a kind of violence to heterosexual men. The remainder of the film is fixated with sexual violence, with the nexus between sex and violence, and by the possibility that all violence might have a sexual component. Curran quickly shifts his suspicions to Catherine Tramell, partly because she confesses so freely to having a purely sexual relationship with the victim. This pursuit of sexual pleasure for its own sake is still suspicious for a female lead in the 90s – and Catherine’s pleasure seems so all-encompassing that it’s almost inevitable, for Curran, that it has motivated this murder too. Here, we see a shift from the “motiveless” crimes of an earlier kind of police procedural to a more disturbing vision of murder that doesn’t need to be motivated by anything other than sexual and visual pleasure – the pleasure of gazing upon it.
Gradually, as Curran investigates Catherine, he starts to suspect that his own acts of violence might also be motivated by a similarly sexual drive. Like Scotty in Vertigo, Curran hasn’t always been consistent in his police work. His slip-up is considerably more drastic though, since where Scotty simply developed vertigo on the job, Curran accidentally shot a pair of tourists during a routine procedure. Although he was cleared, the crime still haunts him, and Catherine clarifies why in a disturbing way – not because he feels guilty, but because he took pleasure in the murders, and longs, at some level, to feel that pleasure again. All the violence that is routinely professionalised in the police force is relibidinised here, turning the act of policing itself into a perverse sexual thrill, and so precluding any critical distance for Curran.
Accordingly, Curran starts to blend his work life and his personal life in increasingly sexual and violent ways. On the one hand, he begins to investigate Catherine on his own time, and quickly enters a sexual relationship with her, all the while knowing that she may well be the killer. On the other hand, his relationship with his police therapist, Beth Garner, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, grows more complicated too. Beth was originally assigned to Curran to make sure he stayed clean after his shooting, but they appear to have entered a sexual relationship at some point in the past. Once Catherine comes on the scene, this relationship grows much more brutal, resulting in a shocking rape scene that firmly aligns Curran with Catherine. From this point on, it’s not plausible that he shot the tourists because he was careless, or even because he was high on cocaine, but because, at some level, he wanted to.
Most of the film thus revolves around Curran (and the film’s) sexual fascination with Catherine, and what she represents. As James Naremore argued, the femme fatale, in classic noir, often reflected the male fear of female professionalisation in the wake of World War II. In neo-noir, this fear is updated, or perhaps clarified – the femme fatale is unsettling because professional autonomy ultimately leads to sexual autonomy, which in turn threatens to undercut the entire male gaze that economises Hollywood production. That process reaches a kind of aesthetic conclusion in Sharon Stone’s performance here. Initially, Catherine is suspicious primarily because of how frankly she speaks about casual sex, but the detectives’ suspicion is compounded when they learn about her degree in literature and psychology, along with the financial autonomy she’s enjoyed ever since her parents mysteriously died.
That’s all narrative stuff though – the real key here is Stone’s performance, which, again, seems a kind of aesthetic endpoint of all the fears channelled into the femme fatale figure, making her more of a femme finale, the female character who culminates and exhausts the trope. In Stone’s hands, Catherine radiates sexuality and intelligence – a sexual intelligence – in every scene. This sexual intelligence, which has its roots in the professional women who haunt noir, exudes an almost unimaginable capacity for social, financial and criminal mobility, starting with the incredible property where Curran first meets her. Framed by a balcony that juts out into the rocky Pacific coast, along the Ninety Mile Drive, Catherine exudes an affective capital that Gordon Gecko could only hope to glimpse, let alone appropriate, in Wall Street.
This mobility suffuses every part of Stone’s performance, since Catherine always seems to be moving around, capable of a preternatural movement that evokes kinetic mind games even when she’s perfectly still. Sometimes she showcases stealth – her ability to enter and exit crimes scenes so quickly that Curran doubts whether she could have ever been there. Sometimes she showcases speed – especially during the many tracking scenes when she leads Curran around hairpin bends on the Ninety Mile Drive or up vertiginous streets in the steepest parts of San Francisco. In each case, she moves so swiftly, silkily or stealthily that she becomes synonymous with the fabric of the film itself, embedded so thoroughly in its cuts, beats and establishing shots that she seems to have orchestrated every scene, even or especially those scenes that frame her as a victim, an object or as a conventional receptacle for the male gaze.
This identification between Catherine and the film is figured through her latest novel, “Shooter,” which she claims to be writing about her relationship with Nick, using their time together to clarify to herself how the story will end. That pervasive metanarrative cements Basic Instinct as a late riff on Vertigo, which was fresh in the American popular consciousness in 1992 after being restored in the 1980s. Hitchcock’s film also dismantles the fantasy of women as the object of the gaze, thus dismantling (to some extent) the male gaze of classical Hollywood itself. Madeleine ensares Scotty’s gaze to trap him, but also reveals that what we think of as atmosphere, mood and momentum are all also gendered, and indebted to this male gaze, since Hitchcock’s fever dream of San Francisco only emerges as Scotty follows her.
Accordingly, when Madeleine withdraws her gaze, Vertigo becomes much more interior, sending Scotty into total catatonia. On the face of it, the third act hangs on the distinction between Madeleine and Judy, but really it’s Scotty who changes most drastically in this final section, going from melancholy and mild-mannered to aggressive and officious in his need to remake Judy as Madeleine, and so restore his panoptic position. Recognising that Judy is Madeleine means recognising that the gaze he longs for was always a contrivance or convention, producing a schizoid and truncated conclusion in which he tries, in vain, to repeat the moment he lost this fantasmatic illusion of objectivity. In the end, the film can’t quite restore this male gaze, but can’t quite think outside of it either, and so ends by doubling in on itself, collapsing into hyperreality and simulation in the final scenes to evoke this stalemate.
Basic Instinct continues this process forty years later, following Hitchcock by using the winding streets of San Francisco to convolute and confound the male gaze. Yet whereas Vertigo is full of stately tracking-shots, paced by Madeleine’s consummate sense of performance, Catherine opens up a much more frenetic and hyperactive sense of the city, epitomised, again, by the amped-up chase scenes in which she forces Curran to zoom in and out of traffic through one near-death experience after another. Similarly, whereas Vertigo shifts from Madeleine to Judy, from representation to reality, to deconstruct the male gaze, Basic Instinct is hyperreal from the outset, meaning there is never a totally stable masculine authority to anchor it. Verhoeven thus uses the male gaze as a parody effect – a dated stylistic device that is inherently ridiculous from the outset, but somehow even more potent once it embraces its own artificiality. The absence of a male gaze as stable referent raises Vertigo’s plot twists to an absurd level too, until the “story” is nothing more than escalating intratextual resonances.
As the narrative gradually fades into this self-citational field, Catherine becomes a kind of doubly resonant figure, mocking both the male gaze and the idea that the male gaze is a stable enough concept to be mocked in the first place. Stone has an incredible capacity to convey allure and contempt in the same gesture – every statement is both erotic and mocking, an invitation and a rebuttal, making her present and remote at the same time, like the great movie stars. Watching her is like seeing the very institution of Hollywood stardom recognise that the femme fatale was never even a meaningful adversary, because the male gaze that it supposedly ruptured was itself a fantasy to begin with. Every time Curran tries to paint Catherine as the femme fatale, she displaces him, often with a single gaze or smile, finding a double alterity precisely in her blithe assurance the alterity projected onto her is a fantasy.
This extends all the female friendship and relationships in Basic Instinct to an evocative distance – the distance of women who have somehow displaced themselves from the visual apparatus Curran has absorbed from Hollywood. While Catherine has three strong relationships that all prove critical to the story – that in some ways are the story – these all occur on the very peripheries of the action, as something the film can’t fully process. First, we have her lesbian relationship with Roxy, a woman who appears abruptly, from time to time, on the fringes of heterosexual experience – at one point she emerges to reveal she’s been watching Catherine and Curran have sex – before retreating back into a shadowy identication with Catherine that sees her take on the role of serial killer Curran has attributed to Catherine.
Then, we have Catherine’s relationship with Beth. It emerges that the two women knew each other at college, and had some kind of lesbian encounter that ended badly. Catherine says Beth started stalking her, Beth says the opposite, but this story is as temporally remote as Roxy is spatially remote, plunging us into an apartment building straight out of the 1950s in the last scene when Beth and Catherine finally (appear) to come together. Last, we have the most evocative relationship in the whole film – one that is both temporally and spatially remote. In the most sustained tracking sequence in the script, and the closest in register to Vertigo, Curran trails Catherine to a small house in a rural Californian town, across the road from a Spanish Mission church that recalls the concluding sequence in Vertigo too. Catherine greets an old lady at the door, who, from a distance, looks like she could be a grandparent.
Instead, this woman is Hazel Dobkins, a woman who murdered her family forty years ago – now apparently a part of Catherine’s inner circle. We only see Hazel once more in the film, and then in the background – the conspicuous background – of a scene in which Curran confronts Catherine on the threshold of her San Francisco home. Hazel is more spatially peripheral than Roxy (we never see her inside Catherine’s house) but more temporally peripheral to, since she’s played by Dorothy Malone, in her final role, conjuring up first great wave of noir femme fatales. This relationship remains open, unformulated, uncanny – the moment at which an actor who commingled with femme fatales communes with an actor who exhausts the femme fatale, in a shared retreat from the male gaze of classical Hollywood.
It’s considerably harder to say where Catherine and Hazel retreat to – or what their world looks like beyond the limits of the film’s gaze. To some extent, there’s a lesbian possibility here, since both Roxy and Beth are linked to Catherine through lesbianism. Lesbian sex often operated as a kind of limit case for the male gaze in erotic thrillers, since it traditionally elicits male voyeurism in cinema, but in real life usually signals an utter (sexual) disinterest in men. Yet the two lesbian relationships here – both softcore in their different ways – ultimately serve to cordon off Catherine’s rapport with Hazel, and Stone’s rapport with Malone, as something even more different, something not entirely legible within the film’s visual logic.
Instead, Verhoeven can only define it negatively – through the way these three relationships, and the presence of Malone in particular, offsets the heterosexual encounters between Curran and Catherine. Whenever men and women get too close here, something ruptures in the very fabric of the film, shifting us from zero to ten, as the languorous mood, and the elegant Hitchcockian citations, abruptly give way to plosive body language and staccato sensual configurations. Orgasm seems to shudder over Catherine and Curran as soon as they touch, but then dissipates just as quickly, rendering the body as a volatile surface that goes from liquid to solid in seconds, just as the film alternates between great swathes of rain and the chunks of ice that Catherine keeps in her house for cocktails. The murder weapon, an ice pick, becomes the main point of contention in these exchanges, as Curran looks for a way to take control of this phallic surrogate, and so regulate his own body, his own sudden changes between hardness and softness, meaning and chaos, in ways that prop up his displaced gaze.
Yet this never happens, although that’s not to say that Catherine retains control of the ice pick either. In the final scene, after sleeping with Curran in a bed that recalls the opening crime tableau, she reaches under the mattress and the camera fades, before fading up again to reveal the ice pick concealed beneath the bed frame. In that final fade, the ice pick, the symbol of what it would take to restore the male gaze, is left as a free-floating image, an empty signifier that refuses to be integrated back into the main body of the film, even as Catherine refrains from integrating it into Curran’s body at this point too. The heterosexual male body remains poised, volatile, between liquid and solid, and in that space, the source of so much fear and fascination in Basic Instinct, Verhoeven and Eszterhas offer the male gaze as a question – a question they never answer, but instead keeps alive precisely as a question.