Famous and infamous, this is really a remarkably adept film from a technical point of view. While working with other Verhoeven material on the day job (namely RoboCop), it seemed reasonable to sample more of his stuff…at least within reason. Basic Instinct, as everyone on the planet has noted, features the ultimate contemporary femme fatale; “ultimate,” at least in a certain sense. Sharon Stone as Catherine is no Laura, no Gilda. She’s fierce and active rather than passively desired. Desire emanates from her while also arousing it in others, and she’s the one who punishes (or seems to punish?) the desiring other. The viewer of course not “identified” or “engaged” with her, so it’s still appropriate to call her the femme fatale. Words are putty to her, just like the dames of noir, but she’s got what they hain’t: a double-major in psychology and English literature from Berkeley. On this note, must mention that this was a travel viewing while commuting from south Silicon Valley into San Francisco, most fittingly. While passing Stanford on the way up, the good and upright psych prof from Stanford in the film made his appearance, condemning at least one of the two Berkeley grads in the film. (Of course, they are women, and the Stanford prof is a dude.) Am wondering how this film was received in the East Bay.
It’s another neo-noir, then, one that differs more quantitatively than qualitatively from the older stuff, or at least from its neo-noir contemporaries. The monstrous feminine make a strong appearance here, replete with the male fear of castration and what’s truly terrifying: a woman who refuses to be bound by her “lack.” She is the v. dentata, as they say. Catherine makes a power play in exactly this sense during the famous interrogation scene, taking the offensive and castrating all the cops in the room. In so doing, there is no longer law. She usurps the paternalistic, patriarchal authority by wielding the weapon of sexuality. What “order” there was in Nick’s life is annihilated by Catherine. He had quick drinking and quit smoking, and was finishing up his obligatory psychiatric evaluation (with his psychiatrist ex) following another shooting that left someone else dead by Nick’s hand. When Catherine proclaims that Nick’s cigarette addiction will return, he appears immediately flustered at the revelation, which acts more as a prophecy. What she says will come to pass, whether spoken or written.
Basic Instinct is rather the precursor to its feminist response, Jane Campion’s later In The Cut. In the latter film, we’re now identified with the woman rather than the male cop, and now it’s the male cop who’s in question as the possible murderer. The woman (Meg Ryan’s character Frannie) is still into literature – she’s an English teacher, able to command authority through language as well as through sexuality. Like Catherine in Basic Instinct, there are times when Frannie wants to dominate and times when she wants to be dominated – she really is the female equivalent of Michael Douglas’ character Nick in Basic Instinct. Frannie’s uncertainty mirrors Nick’s, yet each of them moves forward in their respective relationships with could-be killers, putting themselves in the most compromising situations just for the rush. Because this is traditionally a male role, it makes sense that it’s Nick who, in Basic Instinct, takes the big risk to be with a dangerous woman. It’s hard to tell if Nick desires danger itself or isn’t ultimately capable of being threatened by a women. The tables turn in In The Cut, with Frannie inching herself closer to a potentially dangerous character and creating increased suspense for the patriarchal viewer by virtue of Frannie’s status as a “woman,” i.e. powerless character. Whereas Verhoeven arguably perpetuates this sort of traditional stereotype in his audience, Campion challenges and overturns it.
It’s fascinating that Basic Instinct became, at one point at least, something of a manifesto for feminists. Certainly the character of Catherine wields power here, but she is utterly dehumanized. Frannie in In The Cut is quite human, though her femininity is of a decidedly different sort than the typical. Women in Basic Instinct are all frightening, and all because of their sexuality. Beth, Nick’s ex, hides past secrets of illicit affairs (mostly with other women) and is kept at arm’s length from the viewer and from Nick by virtue of her education and status as a psychiatrist (i.e. master of the mind). We are kept in the dark along with Nick as to Beth’s background. She is constantly implicated in foolish actions that compromise Nick’s ability to investigate the murders and in the murders themselves. Roxy, Catherine’s girl-toy, is anything but human in this film. She is nothing more than a sexual droid that perpetuates the audience’s fear of women. Basic Instinct took a bad rap from the lesbian community, and rightly so, but it should have taken more of a beating from the larger community of women in general, despite the fact that it’s still an impressive technical achievement within traditional boundaries – practically Hitchcockian, even.