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Basic Instinct

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4

*Also starring: George Dzundza, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Denis Arndt, Leilani Sarelle Ferrer, Bruce A. Young, Chelcie Ross, Dorothy Malone, Wayne Knight

Review by Dragan Antulov
3 stars out of 4

There are many ways in which a movie could be influential. Some are influential because they are truly landmarks of movie history; others simply make big money and inspire multitude of cheap imitations that could be seen as subgenre by themselves. In 1990s such subgenre was made of "erotic thrillers" - films that tried to compensate forgettable plots with one or two scenes of sex, as explicit as puritan American censors would allow. After many of those films failed as big Hollywood projects, genre of erotic thriller found its purpose in the domain of straight-to-video, satisfying the needs of the audience too shy to seek porn titles in video stores. This subgenre, one of the most despised by mainstream critics in 1990s, owes its existence to one of the most overhyped films in the history. This film is BASIC INSTINCT, 1992 thriller by Paul Verhoeven, which also happens to be one of favourite guilty pleasures for the author of this review.

Plot of the film begins when retired rock star has torrid sex with mysterious blonde only to get stabbed to death with an ice pick in the heat of passion. His murder is being investigated by Nick Curran (played by Michael Douglas), San Francisco police detective with long and painful personal record of alcoholism, cocaine abuse and frequent shooting incidents that had tragic consequences. His attempts to lead healthy life under the guidance of police counsellor and his occasional girlfriend Doctor Elizabeth Garner (played by Jeanne Tripplehorn) begin to crumble when he encounters the murder suspect in the form of deceased rocker's girlfriend. Catherine Trammel (played by Sharon Stone) is not just stunningly attractive woman and rich heiress; her degree in psychology enables her to play with people's minds. There isn't any evidence pointing to her guilt, but her biography indicates that people around here have a tendency to suffer violent deaths; most disturbing about it is the fact that such incidents, including the latest murder, had been vividly described in Catherine Trammel's novels. Curran is convinced of her guilt and wants to find the conclusive evidence, but his determination is followed with Trammel's willingness to engage into perverse mind games, in which she would use her seductive abilities as well as Curran's own animal impulses.

Two things turned BASIC INSTINCT into one of the most overhyped films of 1992. First one was the record amount of money paid for the screenplay by Joe Eszterhas (of later SHOWGIRLS infamy). The other one was the unprecedented wave of street protest by American gay activists over alleged negative portrayal of lesbian and bisexual characters in the film (those demonstrations, staged at the zenith of Political Correctness, later had major impact on Hollywood; few producers would ever dare to have a less than saintly gay characters in their movies). For the author of this review, both the film's producers and demonstrators were wrong. First of all, Eszterhas' script, although not as bad as his later reputation would indicate, was hardly worthy of those 3 millions US$. The plot, which was supposed to be whodunit style murder mystery is full of red herrings, major plot holes and elements and situations that sometimes really insult viewers' intelligence. And, before the script culminates in corny and weak ending, it is being spiced with all police movie cliches plus some added bonus in form of sex, drugs, police corruption and all possible ingredients of decadent lifestyle.

Allegedly unfavourable (at least for 1990s PC standards) portrayal of homosexual characters actually corresponds with the way Eszterhas treated everyone else in this movie. Hardly any character is likeable - they are all either incredibly stupid, bigoted, flawed or simply lack any values associated with decent human beings. The only exception - character we actually care for - is Curran's partner Gus, but that has more to do with the way George Dzundza played this character than with corny lines and stereotypical character written by Eszterhas.

Having all that in mind, BASIC INSTINCT could be viewed as a triumph of style over substance. Verhoeven had really tremendous task in hiding such terrible flaws of the script and turning this film into truly enjoyable piece of trash cinema. He succeeded in this by staging some elaborate scenes that would later become memorable. The best example is, of course, famous interrogation scene which is excellent combination of superb editing, costume design by Ellen Mirojnick, suggestive photography by Jan de Bont, and, of course, Sharon Stone's acting. After being exposed to such brilliant piece of manipulative filmmaking who would bother to think about story that doesn't make sense? Just in case, Verhoeven uses all tricks in the books, by providing some good action and gore and indulging himself in Hitchcockian references - those associated with VERTIGO are most obvious, thanks to San Francisco scenery. But the biggest attention is given to the oldest and most effective ingredient of successful trash - sex. Apart from usual quantities of nudity, both male and female, this film provides scenes of very graphic sex, as close to softcore porn as possible in the puritanical atmosphere of Hollywood. Those scenes, source of great hype at the time, might look rather mild or even boring after so many years; but Verhoeven, compared with his imitators (including himself in dreadful and downright anti-erotic SHOWGIRLS) looks like a real grandmaster of Hollywood style smut.

The biggest contribution to the BASIC INSTINCT was definitely given by her female lead Sharon Stone. That actress here played the role of a lifetime, creating one of the most memorable characters in the history of cinema. Catherine Trammel might be too much of a character in the script to be believable - beautiful woman, intelligent manipulator and psychopathic villain. Yet, Sharon Stone manages to bring her to life; she doesn't just look stunningly beautiful - she simply oozes sexuality, combined with the great confidence of superior mind and the seductive appeal of utter evil. Men (and some women) are powerless against such unstoppable sex machine; for many of them being ice-picked to death might even seem like a acceptable price for brief moments of ecstasy in her bed. This great role of Sharon Stone (that would actually begin to haunt her in the rest of her career) shadowed everyone else. For Michael Douglas it wasn't such a problem, since he only reprised the role of oversexed male pig from FATAL ATRACTION. But Jeanne Tripplehorn was not so convincing as her rival and later had to work much harder in order to establish herself as a real actress. Actually, in the long run, BASIC INSTINCT had hurt careers of almost everyone involved, despite being commercial success. The only exception, perhaps, is Jerry Goldsmith; his great, atmospheric musical score was often praised as the best element of the film; even those who don't like BASIC INSTINCT are often saying that Goldsmith's score improved the general impression.

All in all, BASIC INSTINCT is a film that should be viewed as nothing more than a good example of Hollywood craftsmanship. It is enjoyable little flick that didn't deserve its popularity, as well as its infamy.

Copyright 2000 Dragan Antulov

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