The Fuck of the Century: Why Basic Instinct is the Ultimate Erotic Blockbuster


Purveyor of sleaze Paul Verhoeven goes above and beyond with his controversial erotic thriller


Some films start with a whisper. Some start with a bang. Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct is one of the prime examples of the latter. In the same way that anyone who had read Joe Eszterhas’ script would have been instantly hooked, whoever had sat down to watch this in the cinema or at home would have had to reinsert their eyeballs back into their head. Opening with Jerry Goldsmith’s incredible, velvet-smooth and seductive score, we see what look like writhing bodies reflected in a soft-focus mosaic of hard-angled mirrors. Trust me, this is about as coy as the film gets. After the credits have finished, we get a bravura shot from cinematographer Jan de Bont of a mirror reflecting a naked couple having sex in bed in a warmly lit room, after which the camera then moves down to reveal that the mirror is on the ceiling, and the couple are now right there, in our faces, still grinding away, with barely anything left to the imagination. At this point the audiences back in 1992 were likely to be either discomfited or excited. Maybe a bit of both. Here we go.

Yet for all the eroticism on show, there’s something wrong. The music has become an uneasy blend of dreamy, eerie synthesisers and massively portentous strings — usually sex scenes aren’t scored with such an atmosphere of dread, are they? Okay, so the unidentifiable woman (whose blonde hair keeps obscuring her face) has just tied up the guy’s hands to the bedposts with a silk scarf, but that’s just a bit of kinky fun, right? So why’s the music getting scarier? Because just as the two of them are about to reach orgasm, the woman pulls out an ice-pick from beneath the bed sheets and goes on, with the score now a veritable full-blown explosion of violence, to stab him to death, plunging the weapon in his neck, through his nose and into his chest for a total of, it is later revealed (we’re spared the murder in full here), THIRTY-ONE times. As opening scenes go, it is so outrageously full-on and so perfect an encapsulation of those good ol’ cinema sins — sex and violence — that in effect it became impossible to top. Any film afterwards that tried to outdo it in its own opening minutes, even if it was more explicit, would be seen for what it was — a rip-off.

Love it or hate it, you can’t deny that Basic Instinct was one of the must-see movies of its era. The fourth most successful film released in 1992, it was deliberately provocative and pretty much gave viewers everything the 18 or the R-rating promised – sex, nudity, violence, gore, and wrapped it up in an immaculate, thrilling package that ruffled feathers, shocked audiences, wound up critics, angered feminist and gay rights groups and wore out pause buttons everywhere. It was one of those hot-topic films that you had to see. After the realities of AIDS had sunk into the Hollywood consciousness (and conscience), the 90s saw major films ready to either discuss the subject in frank matter, or at the very least, start fucking like minks all over again. The likes of Henry and June (the first NC-17 film ever released) had already started the way towards a less prurient decade, but Basic Instinct went all-out, and it turns out it was what everyone wanted.

Although distributed by Tri-Star, Basic Instinct was essentially an indie film, albeit an indie film co-produced by Carolco Pictures, who had struck gold with the Rambo films, not to mention Verhoeven’s earlier monster hit Total Recall and of course, Terminator 2: Judgement Day. With a risk-addicted director such as Verhoeven behind the wheel, you knew that a crowd-pleaser was guaranteed but also something that would also push the envelope in what was deemed acceptable in a mainstream movie. After all, he had already directed plenty of films that tested the borderline in regards to sex, violence and sexual violence back in his homeland of the Netherlands and in the US, but Basic Instinct would arguably out-shock everything he had made up until then.

Gus: Are you a pro?

Catherine: No, I’m an Amateur.

Just as controversial as the film itself was the making of the film, with extreme tension on show everywhere. According to Eszterhas, the first thing an all-guns-blazing Verhoeven said to him was ‘how can we put more tits and cunt into this movie?’, before demanding that because he was the director, he had the right to put whatever the hell he wanted into his movie, including a load of lesbian sex scenes. Eszterhas was not amused. Gay rights activists, including Queer Nation and GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), had cottoned on to the content of the film and, angered by yet another Hollywood movie that depicted homosexuals and bisexuals as twisted, homicidal and evil (and set in San Francisco too), proceeded to protest filming, often disrupting shooting schedules, demanding rewrites to the script (specifically anything that could be read as homophobic), and in the process giving the cast, especially lead Michael Douglas, second thoughts about the kind of film they were making. For the activists, targeting a high-profile film like Basic Instinct was a perfect opportunity to get their concerns about Hollywood’s stereotyping of sexuality and its tendency to link ‘other’ sexuality with violence. It’s easy to see the film these days as another Hollywood blockbuster, especially now that a variety of LGBT characters are in relative abundance, but back then it was a different story — lesbian characters were still seen as ‘exotic’ and films like this weren’t really helping to push things forward. When the film was released, the same activists spoiled the end of the movie by revealing who the killer was.

Then there was the tension between cast and director, as well as between cast members. Rumours of almost-affairs, actual affairs, jealousy, violence (Douglas apparently headbutted Verhoeven on set) and disturbingly, according to breakout star Sharon Stone, outright manipulation on Verhoeven’s part, most notoriously, that the director talked her into removing her underwear during the film’s famous interrogation scene because it was reflecting light back onto the camera, promising not to film her vagina in the process but, as we all would find out, doing so anyway. Sex scenes that took over a week to film, and were apparently quite distressing and exhausting, as well as murder scenes that seriously upset Stone, with Verhoeven screaming at her to deliver the frenzied goods with vicious abandon. Finally, there were censorship issues. Like Verhoeven’s last two films, Basic Instinct was deemed unacceptable to be released uncut as an R-rated film in the States. Despite the MPAA keen to release the film in full as an NC-17, thereby legitimising the rating which had struggled to become accepted as a new, viable replacement to the old, synonymous-with-porn X-rating, ultimately the filmmakers wanted the more commercial R-rating, which led to Verhoeven re-cutting the film 7 times and with approximately 42 seconds of cuts before it was deemed suitable to go out with its more multiplex-friendly rating.

On a commercial level, all this tension was worth it. As high-gloss, skin-deep adult thrillers with a little bit of everything to test boundaries go, the film was an absolute sensation. In its own way, this was the Dressed to Kill of the 1990s, a modern, contemporary whodunit using a crazy potboiler of a plot to indulge in all kinds of vice and sin that deliberately provoked, playing on our fears and excitement over sex and violence. And of course, V-neck sweaters.

Now that we’ve already met our victim and our mystery murderer in the first scene, all we need is our detective — meet Nick Curran (Douglas), former alcoholic, former cokehead and former disgrace to the San Francisco police department, who with his wisecracking partner Gus Moran (George Dzundza) arrive at the murder scene where the bloodied and still-naked Johnny Boz (gotta love that name) lays dead in a bed with enough semen on the sheets to suggest that an elephant may have been in the room with him and the killer. The chief suspect is Catherine Tramell (Stone) — successful crime writer, multi-millionaire, magna cum laude psychology graduate and someone with an uncanny awareness of Nick’s past, which is dark to say the least. Right from the off she’s got the upper hand on him, and she’s deliberately letting Nick know that, from those casually left archived newspapers of his notorious, coke-fuelled accidental shooting of two tourists years before to later riling him about his drug habits and the suicide of his wife.

There’s another reason why Catherine is under suspicion. The plot of her last novel involved a rock star who was stabbed to death with an ice pick. But, you may think, if Catherine did do it, why would she write about it beforehand? Surely that’s signposting herself as the killer? But then again, by writing in the book in advance, it could detract suspicion away from Catherine due to its sheer unlikeliness. Oh, and what’s the plot of Catherine’s next novel? It’s about a detective who ‘falls for the wrong woman’ who ends up dead. Uh-oh. Anyone with half a brain would steer clear (and Gus is very vocal in his protestations), but Nick becomes absolutely obsessed, convinced she’s the killer and yet falling for her despite that being A Very Bad Idea. His on-off girlfriend (and appointed psychiatric counsellor) Beth (Jeanne Tripplehorn) becomes the subject of his frustrations, until eventually he and Catherine begin an intense physical relationship, including the ‘fuck of the century’, an epic sex scene that took eight days (and eleven hours a day) to film.

Nick’s addiction to Catherine is totally self-destructive, but he can’t get enough. She’s constantly wrong-footing him until by the end he’s completely under her spell. Maybe in Catherine he sees a fellow sinner who won’t judge him, or maybe he’s subconsciously wishing to be her next victim. He’s possibly got a death wish, or at the very least some kind of desire to embrace oblivion in the sex he indulges, with his famous ‘fuck like minks, raise/forget the rugrats and live happily ever after’ declaration some kind of insane fantasy that he’s happy to go along with.

After many twists, turns, interrogations, car chases, dead bodies and betrayals, we end up with Gus gruesomely murdered in an elevator, Beth shot dead by Nick in a case of mistaken self-defence and the mystery seemingly solved. All evidence seems to point to Beth being the culprit. Then the final scene pulls off a brilliant trick by leading us into thinking that Catherine actually may be the killer after all and that Nick is doomed, only instead she pulls him towards her and instigates another round of sex. Goldsmith’s simmering, agonisingly suspenseful score then erupts into a glorious, full-blown explosion of romantic melodrama and we fade to black. Love (or at least lust) conquers all. Right?

Nick : How’s your new book coming along?

Catherine : It’s practically writing itself.

Oh wait, we’ve just faded back in, to the same moment, Catherine and Nick still ravishing each other, and the music, whilst continuing its stirring, passionate drive, nonetheless has a few unsettling tones in the background, and as the camera moves down beneath the bed, we understand why. There’s a goddamn ice pick, right there. The music then switches, amazingly, into an all-out, ‘danger-DANGER!’ siren theme, there’s a final, “stab-STAB-STAB!” percussive flourish and we cut to black. You can almost imagine the reason why the credits begin with only the subtlest, quietest of piano was to give the audience a chance to exhale and quickly share their thoughts with their date, or their friend, or if alone, to just take it all in quietly. Then, when the main theme picks up with all its lushness, we’re ready to leave, ready to discuss. And Basic Instinct was, more than most things, a talking point.

With sexual politics, sexual obsession and adult themes expressed in graphic detail, Basic Instinct was one of the most conceptually perverse smash hits of the decade. However, a lot of this perverseness is strictly surface-deep. The film’s themes shock and raise eyebrows, but they rarely, lingeringly disturb. For all its provocation, it doesn’t have an awful lot to say beyond paying lip-service to complex psychological and psycho-sexual issues persuasively touched upon by Eszterhas’ engrossing, hugely quotable script. Similarly, the plot’s logic falls apart if you think about it too much — realism is not a priority here, people. Most of the characters behave hilariously unprofessional. There’s a huge plot hole near the end (if Nick realises what’s going to happen to Gus in the elevator after reading Catherine’s manuscript, then he surely can’t suspect anyone else other than her, and yet he kills Beth!) and DNA is totally ignored in the investigation — like Catherine’s books, your enjoyment on this all depends on ‘suspension of disbelief’. And that’s okay. Even if the film doesn’t linger in the psyche afterwards, its impact when watching it is more than visceral enough to provide enough twisted entertainment. Gary Goldman, who worked on revisions to Eszterhas’ script (albeit uncredited) says “I don’t think Basic Instinct is about anything.” On one level I get what he means — the film is pure sensation, pure entertainment, pure button-pushing, pure pleasure. Verhoeven, for all his pride towards the film, admits it is ‘nonsense’. But what fun it is! For all of Basic Instinct‘s wild excesses and humorous streak, one of its greatest successes is that it plays its game with such conviction, energy and flair that it kind of remains bulletproof to criticism.

As for the much-mooted bisexual element, it’s just so much window dressing, a chic slice of exoticism to spice up the danger, albeit crudely and with cavalier abandon. All three of the murder suspects have experimented with lesbianism to varying degrees, and the only innocent one of the three — Beth — equates it as a possibly bad thing (‘I was embarrassed’), and the way Nick throws that ‘do you still like girls?’ line at her before he kills her has a mean edge to it. There are also a few cheap shots thrown in for comic value, like Nick calling Catherine’s girlfriend Roxy ‘Rocky’ and requesting that they speak ‘man to man’.

What is most intriguing about the film is its attitudes towards women — Eszterhas seems to have a major suspicion and fear of them, especially if they’re independent and love pleasure. None of the women in this film are parents, and Catherine makes a point of saying she hates ‘rugrats’. There are two instances of female characters having unpredictably snapped mentally and killed their families, acts of violence that seem to have come out of nowhere, which makes it all the more terrifying. Rarely for a film of this kind, the most viciously dispatched characters are men. Yet in the end, Catherine wins. She isn’t punished. Although are we meant to revel in her success? The film seems more like it’s trying to say ‘fear for Nick’ rather than ‘cheer for Catherine’. This is not a film about love — although it is mentioned in passing. Ultimately love, as per the name of Catherine’s most recent book, hurts. This is a film that opts for pleasure, of the sexual kind, of the violent kind, and quite often, a mixture of both. It’s also about the pleasure of playing games — sadistic ones, dangerous ones. The term ‘fuck of the century’ also refers to how Catherine completely screws Nick over, using him emotionally and physically to bring her next book to life. I mean, she even calls the goddamn novel Shooter in reference to the pejorative nickname he acquired following his manslaughter controversy. The sex in this film is not beautiful, or tender, or intimate — it’s intense, heated, frenzied, violent. The only warmth comes from the lighting in the scenes.

Speaking of sex, the violent ‘is it rape?’ scene between Nick and Beth was one notable moment that provoked controversy. Already turned on by Catherine and wound-up by corrupt Internal Affairs agent Nielsen in the very bar where he has just fallen off the wagon, he takes out his lust and frustration on Beth, tearing her clothes off the minute they walk into his apartment. At first Beth seems taken aback, but she seems willing to play along — indeed, she even smiles. This is pure, animal lust, equally given and taken. But then Nick takes complete control and drags her to the edge of the sofa, taking her roughly from behind, despite her pleas, and finishing within moments. She then starts kissing his fingers immediately afterwards. Verhoeven agrees that the scene itself is very complex emotionally, with consent given and then not given and then ultimately given, while Douglas believes it not to be rape at all, but ‘aggressive’ sex between two adults. It’s a tough scene to call. Decide for yourself.

Gus : Did you ever do drugs with Mr. Boz?

Catherine : Sure.

Gus : What kind of drugs?

Catherine : Cocaine. Have you ever fucked on cocaine, Nick? It’s nice.

[Catherine Tramell uncrosses her legs and it can be seen she’s wearing no underwear]

Nick : You like playing games don’t you?

Catherine : I have a degree in psychology, it goes with the turf… Games are fun.

The other, hysterically over-the-top sex scenes, which were storyboarded in graphic detail by Verhoeven and shrewdly described by critic Roger Ebert as the equivalent of a ‘violent contact sport’, are some of the most vividly choreographed and cinematically staged ever in a film. They’re certainly explicit, lengthy and in-your-face, but one thing they’re most certainly not are realistic, and with Goldsmith’s score in absolute overdrive throughout, they become ludicrously operatic. They’re all part of the spectacle, as much a set-piece as the film’s car chases or the outbursts of violence. As the middle chapter in his unofficial ‘sex trilogy’ (along with Fatal Attraction and Disclosure), Basic Instinct once more showcased Michael Douglas as an actor more than happy to flirt with controversy and get his arse out for the crowds. Just one of many great roles that seemed tailor-made for his intense, explosive and seething edginess, Douglas admitted that it was “fun to play darker parts, it’s fun to play parts that have an edge to them, that allow you to not worry about likeability”. Which makes sense, because Nick Curran is on many levels, not a very nice guy. But he’s our hero, albeit a flawed one, and we’re with him on this journey whether we like it (and him) or not. Yet in the end it was a name that wasn’t on the original posters or in front of the title in the opening credits that got all the headlines — Sharon Stone.

Finding the right (or any) actress to play the role of Catherine proved to be a tough one. The nudity and the sex was the big turn-off for so many A-listers, and while Douglas wanted a co-star just as big as he was (therefore sharing the risk he was taking in appearing in a film of this kind), in the end Verhoeven went with the actress who’d made such a terrific impression in Total Recall as Schwarzenegger’s duplicitous, athletic and ultimately divorced ‘wife’. Stone, who Verhoeven states ‘was Catherine’ from the moment she auditioned, is sensational. There’s an interesting tension in the way the film pores all over her but she (and the character) are constantly fighting back to assert her dominance. The most obvious and explicit instance of this is the remarkable interrogation scene, when Catherine is brought in under questioning by the police and turns the tables on a room full of law enforcers by using her mental and physical wiles on them. She seems to be two steps ahead of them all, and then for the sheer thrill of it, she uncrosses her legs to reveal that she’s not wearing any underwear. And we see for ourselves too. It’s probably the most notorious single shot in the whole of 90s cinema, and it still stuns thanks to the sheer scandalous nature of it all.

On one level it’s one hell of a gratuitous shot — the female form laid bare to be ogled at, but on another level, it’s deliciously provocative and totally exposes our own role as voyeurs and peeping toms in the dark, totally lured in by the power of the screen, and of Catherine/Stone, who just as quickly, closes her legs and leaves us, just like Wayne Knight’s sweating defence attorney who none-too-subtly leans in for a closer peek, looking like dupes. Verhoeven’s playing his own games here. You can just see him grinning ear to ear as he does so. With this scene in particular, Basic Instinct became an instant pop-culture classic.

Yet despite its popularity, the erotic thriller never really became a credible force to be reckoned with, at least at the multiplex. Other major league efforts like Body of Evidence, Sliver (starring Stone), Jade (written by Eszterhas) and Color of Night were much mocked critical and commercial failures. There were lower-profile gems, like John Dahl’s terrific The Last Seduction, or the  Wachowskis’ stylish, vivacious Bound, but for the most part the genre became the staple of the direct-to-video circuit, the after 11pm-only schedules of Sky Movies and later, the Friday night special on newly-minted UK network Channel 5. You could argue that 1989‘s Sea of Love, which was genuinely, searingly erotic (thanks to killer chemistry between Al Pacino and Ellen Barkin) was the real deal when it came to this sort of thing. But ultimately Basic Instinct was the biggest, the boldest, the most brash and it’s still as sharp as an ice pick.




Written by Jimi Fletcher

Film fan, music fan, etc. Visit my site fletchtalks.wordpress.com for reviews, film commentaries and random crap. Proud contributor to vhsrevival.com and gametripper.co.uk PS: LONG LIVE LIBRARIES.

3 comments

  1. Great write-up on a film which I find to be very steamy and suspenseful (I owned it on DVD for years); I always enjoyed the controversy associated with this films as well, since many aspect of the film’s content was taboo to many. Paul Verhoeven doing his thing here for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d like to elaborate on my initial comment, since I had a dream about my thoughts, woke up, and began writing some thoughts down (yes, this really happened, and I wrote in the dark:-).
    Okay, one of the issues I think that erotic thrillers faced were the stigma of being late-night, B-Movie affairs starring the likes of Andrew Stevens, Shannon Tweed, or any combination of the two plus some other players. So, other than the fact that the public had something puritanical at work when it came to steamy content like that overall (picketing “Basic Instinct”, for example), the fact that an actress who would even consider the content and nudity involved would be scared away due to being looked at as settling or lacking ambition in terms of such roles. Thing is, I see “Basic Instinct” as a cut above and a maturity of the short-lived genre, and I feel that even “Sliver” (some things I liked, some I didn’t), “Jade” (I thought it was okay), and “Bound” (liked it a lot) are as well.
    Now, I place “Basic Instinct” with a film like “Fatal Attraction” (not just because of Michael Douglas either), “9 1/2 Weeks”, or “Wild Orchid”, since those films carry more of a animalistic, “sex is violence” quotient in them. Now, for films like “Body Heat” and “The Last Seduction”, I see them as more explicit versions of 1940’s film noir like “Double Indemnity” (would Barbara Stanwyck have done nudity? Well, she was a Ziegfeld Follies gal for awhile:-) or “Laura”; Modern day film noir with nudity.
    Jimi mentioned in his write-up that the sex scenes in “Basic Instinct” weren’t necessarily realistic, and not only do I agree, but I think that lack of realism in future erotic pictures (along with a corniness that I believe “Basic Instinct” avoided due to the intensity of the main characters and overall vibe) signaled an early death of the mainstream erotic thriller.
    I have to hand it to the cowboy renegade Joe Eszterhas, as I think the wheels were already churning when it came to him writing something like “Basic Instinct” when he wrote 1985’s “Jagged Edge” (a film I love); the opening scene there, to me, is a foreshadowing to “Basic Instinct”. I mean, make the woman the main focus, crank up the nudity, and eliminate the courtroom drama while added a flawed and beleaguered cop, and we have “Basic Instinct”:-)

    Liked by 1 person

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