Filmmaker Firsts #27: Paul Verhoeven

#27: Basic Instinct (1992) – dir. Paul Verhoeven

To prepare for an upcoming film class in which the auteur theory will be applied to the works of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven – climaxing, so to speak, with the notorious trainwreck Showgirls (1995) – I had to decide which Verhoeven movie to watch prior to class, just so that I would be somewhat familiar with his “style” (or lack thereof). I chose Basic Instinct, not because I necessarily thought it would be better than Verhoeven’s sci-fi outings – RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Starship Troopers (1997), Hollow Man (2000) – but because it had the largest number of actors I like. As I watched Basic Instinct I couldn’t help remembering what Roger Ebert wrote in his review of A Perfect Murder (1998) and the idea of the “Fatal Basic” genre “about sex between bad people who live in good houses.” (Really, what was it with Michael Douglas doing Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Disclosure and A Perfect Murder? I don’t think I’ve ever considered him “sexy” in anything but Romancing the Stone, but that movie is probably the antithesis of Basic Instinct.) If anything the title should be Basic Lack of Instinct since Michael Douglas’s character is one of the dumbest detectives imaginable. No matter how many clues are thrown in his face, he never picks up on even the most unmissable signals. And considering how famous Basic Instinct is for its sex scenes, none of them seemed sexy to me. Unlike Body Heat (1981), which has the benefit of a slow-burning buildup, Basic Instinct desensitizes the viewer to both sex and violence in the film’s opening scene. There is zero subtlety, only graphic content. After that, sex and violence are so normal in the film’s world that the following scenes are not particularly exciting. (And that’s to say nothing of the sexual encounter between Michael Douglas and Jeanne Tripplehorn, which to me is obviously nonconsensual, although other viewers would apparently rather forget that Tripplehorn’s character clearly says no.) I guess the most positive takeaways from my viewing experience are Jerry Goldsmith’s unsettling score, which was deservedly nominated for an Oscar, and Jan de Bont’s cinematography.

The infamous interrogation scene in which an underwear-free Sharon Stone flashes the detectives, all of whom promptly forget their line of questioning, is more worthy of analysis for the lightning and the camera angles (especially the close-ups) than anything else. Also, for all you “Seinfeld” devotees, Newman is there too. Another also: this scene from “The Simpsons.” So it’s kind of hard to take it too seriously.

I can live with the fact that Sharon Stone’s outfit and hair in the interrogation scene are an imitation of Kim Novak’s look in Vertigo (1958) and I am aware that Basic Instinct’s setting in San Francisco, plus a number of other shots in the film, are modeled on Vertigo as well. What I can’t forgive, however, is when Verhoeven rips off a ripoff. There is an elevator murder scene in Basic Instinct that is stolen directly from Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill (1980), which is itself a greatest-hits collection of favorite moments from Hitchcock films. If you’re going to steal, stick to stealing from the best.

I also can’t forgive that unflattering and very 90s sweater that Michael Douglas wears.

Everything about Basic Instinct’s nightclub scene is dated, but this shot brings me to another negative point: Sharon Stone’s character has a girlfriend, played by Leilani Sarelle, and the character is onscreen for only two reasons, either to titillate the moviegoers (lesbianism for the purposes of appealing to a heterosexual male audience) or to act angry and/or violent towards Michael Douglas. Sarelle’s character has no personality, only the two possibilities of sex with women or hatred towards men. Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas allows nothing in between for her.

What this movie could use more of is its most talented supporting actors. Dorothy Malone, for goodness’ sake! Wayne Knight! Stephen Tobolowsky! James Rebhorn! None of these actors gets enough screen time. In the end Basic Instinct is certainly entertaining, but you would be fooling yourself if you thought it was great moviemaking. Your only option is to accept it for what it is: a Fatal Basic combo of cheese and sleaze.

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3 thoughts on “Filmmaker Firsts #27: Paul Verhoeven

  1. Parodies from the Simpsons severely influenced my experience of many a classic film. Including giving away the ending of the original Planet of the Apes before I had seen it.

  2. Basic Instinct is a cinematic achievement like no other.
    It has this distinctive gritty, almost film noir visual setting and Sharon’s performance was superb like most of her work.

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