Still, it wasn’t just the sex and violence that the film takes to almost ludicrous heights (or depths). The witty homages to Vertigo and other Hitchcock classics are everywhere, from Jerry Goldsmith’s sinuous theme to de Bont’s virtuoso camerawork. The houses are magnificent. The costumes (Douglas’s green V-neck aside) are spectacular. And the story is so sensational and so convoluted that it teeters on the edge of irony, without ever quite falling off. We aren’t told who the killer is in the opening scene, but we are told that the victim was a retired rock star, and that his girlfriend was Stone’s character, Catherine Tramell. We then learn that Tramell is an author who featured a rock star killed in an identical way in one of her novels. Douglas’s police detective, Nick Curran, investigates, but he can’t resist the prime suspect. The distinct possibility that she is a homicidal maniac is part of the allure. (Spoiler alert: she is.)
This plot is already more preposterous than those in, say, Fatal Attraction and Sea of Love. But Basic Instinct is just getting started. Eszterhas drops in a new twist or revelation every five minutes, not only in the ongoing whodunnit but in the characters’ back stories, too. It’s standard film-noir practice to have a cop with a scandal in his past. In Basic Instinct, the cop in question is an alcoholic who accidentally shot some tourists while he was high on cocaine. Oh, and his wife killed herself. Catherine’s CV is just as colourful. Her first husband was a boxer who was beaten to death in the ring, and she had an obsessive relationship with her college buddy – who, as it transpires, also happens to be Nick’s police department psychologist, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn. And her girlfriend and best friend? No big deal, but they both butchered several members of their own families.
An inspiring anti-heroine?
It is Catherine who embodies the sense that Basic Instinct is the erotic thriller to end them all. Other film-noir seductresses may commit their crimes for money or love or to escape a stifling marriage, but Catherine is single, wealthy, and far more interested in sex than love; she murders people just to see if she can get away with it. As malevolent as she may be, she is also, in certain ways, a weirdly inspiring figure. “She is viewed through a paranoid male lens,” says Anna Smith, a film critic and the host of the Girls on Film podcast, “but there are aspects of her character that were and to an extent still are refreshing. She is the central female in a mainstream movie who has a successful career, who is in complete control, smarter than the men around her, sexually liberated and defiantly unmaternal.”
In his DVD commentary, Verhoeven calls Catherine “the devil” and “Satan”. De Bont says that he lights her as a “goddess”. Stone won the role only after such bankable names as Michelle Pfeiffer, Geena Davis, Melanie Griffith and Kim Basinger had turned it down. But it’s impossible to imagine anyone matching the insouciant confidence she brings to the character. An unforgettable blend of Jessica Rabbit and Hannibal Lecter, Catherine is in charge of every situation from the moment she turns her boyfriend into a human colander in the opening scene to the moment she gets off scot free at the end. The interrogation scene in which she uncrosses and crosses her legs, showing the police, and the viewer, that she isn’t wearing any underwear, has become notorious. In her recently published memoir, The Beauty of Living Twice, Stone repeats her past allegation that she was assured by Verhoeven during filming that “we won’t see anything.” But she also notes that the revealing shot “was correct for the film and for the character”. It’s hard to disagree. The shot demonstrates how comfortable Catherine is with her body and the power it has over the overgrown schoolboys ogling her.