Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct has all the twists and turns of the most byzantine of the films noir and it runs like a wind-up toy as it tick-tick-ticks away to the inevitable explosion. The 1992 erotic thriller features a screenplay by Joe Eszterhas that is as mischievous as it needs to be, delivering hard-hitting lines from sordid characters.
The noir playbook is certainly consulted, with Basic Instinct featuring a blistering femme fatale and a spoiled detective set to fall ass-over-teakettle into her web. There is a strong sense of doom and an insistence that nobody gets out of Verhoeven’s filthy San Francisco alive.
True to form, Basic Instinct opens with a bloody murder. A former rock star is killed with an ice pick by a mysterious blonde. Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and his partner Detective Gus Moran (George Dzundza) investigate. The trail leads to author Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone), who was bonking the victim.
It turns out that Catherine has a book that mirrors the exact events of the crime. The investigation is twisted, with Curran falling for her ice-cold charms. His damaged past collides with her desire to turn him into a novel. He slips back into drinking and smoking, engaging in a hot affair with the lead suspect.
Basic Instinct goes where it wants. That’s part of its charm, but it’s also part of why very little in this popcorn sextravaganza matters. It works as pure entertainment and some will indeed by titillated by the rabid, ferocious sex scenes and the lurid language and the dingy aura.
Without question, the blatant blueness is its ace in the proverbial hole. Here, Verhoeven uses sex the way he uses violence in RoboCop and Total Recall. The elements of Hollywood’s moral triggers form the thrust of his sardonic approach, as the sex gets so dumbfounding and ridiculous that it reads like camp.
There are scenes that push the envelope, like how Curran drunkenly presses things with Dr. Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn). And there are scenes that suggest the glittering garishness of San Francisco nightlife, as when Tramell sniffs coke in a club bathroom and grinds against the protagonist while her other lover (Leilani Sarelle) watches.
Much of this stuff gives the impression of a ruse, like we’re watching people play at “being sexy.” And to her credit, Stone plays it flawlessly. The famed interrogation scene is a master class in generating this kind of tongue-in-cheek, elbowing sexual tension.
Stone’s portrayal of Tramell intimidates the men. Her frankness regarding her sexual relationship with the deceased is disarming to Curran and his partner, but she doubles down in the interrogation scene and toys with the boys in blue. She even addresses Curran, who she’s just met, by his first name.
Jan de Bont’s shooting of the scene is fantastic. He uses sinewy zooms, close-ups and wide shots to convey the airless feel of the room. The famous “shot” (which Stone claims came without her knowledge) is an extension of her repartee, of her commentary about how she liked having sex with the victim. Women, in the minds of the boys’ club, are not supposed to like sex.
The actual murder of Basic Instinct is immaterial and that can be frustrating. But like most films noir, the texture holds more importance. Verhoeven understands this and weighs his movie down with so much San Francisco pathos that it starts to buckle under the mass of erotic nonsense and sweltering glares.