Who Needs a Light Touch When Smothering Will Do: The Weaponized Stereotypes of Basic Instinct
by Derek Godin
Here’s my favourite bit of trivia about Paul Verhoeven: for the longest time, his 1980 film Spetters was available in full on PornHub. This isn’t as weird as, say, Crash winning both the Cannes Special Jury Prize and an AVN Award in 1996, but it is a perversely appropriate footnote in the great director’s career considering the material he favours. Spetters was a tipping point of sorts for Verhoeven, the explicit sex and lurid violence becoming integral and inextricable from the story being told. The backlash to Spetters (including but not limited to its portrayal of queer men) was so harsh that he decided to high-tail it to Hollywood. But not before he helmed The Fourth Man, a grisly, visually ripe art thriller about an alcoholic bisexual author plagued by visions of the Virgin Mary warning him that the woman he’s having an affair with will kill him. It’s like a Hitchcock film amputated of its subtext. Subtlety is not one of Verhoeven’s strong suits, but this doesn’t mean he isn’t sly or thoughtful. He’s just loud about it.
People have been getting hung up on the volume and tone of Verhoeven’s movies for nearly 40 years now, and the misunderstandings reached a fever pitch during his American blockbuster run. While some of those film were warmly received and/or giant box office hits, they all employ loud, outsized versions of existing tropes to hammer home their point. Verhoeven used his own culture shock and a self-imposed diet of American media to help give RoboCop its subversive edge. Total Recall is a narrative and thematic matryoshka doll made of facades, fake-outs and lies; the dream of the perfect life has been implanted in you by your capitalist environment. It’s this warping of reality that enable two of the slyest jokes in the film: casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as just a regular working dude, and insisting that Sharon Stone is somehow a homely housewife. In both cases, Verhoeven hyperbolized and weaponized societal concepts–the police state, mass advertising, the solipsistic American dream. Verhoeven would then cast Stone again in his follow-up Basic Instinct as a one-person weaponized stereotype: the duplicitous, sociopathic bisexual woman.
The protests came fast and furious even before principal photography was completed. A subgroup of the San Francisco branch of Queer Action called Lesbian and Bi Women in Action (LABIA) protested the shoot for weeks, their main grievance being the script’s negative depiction of Stone’s character Catherine Tramell, a bisexual woman. Whether or not the protests were warranted seems beside the point; fighting for positive representation is noble cause. But nothing in the film suggests that Catherine’s criminality is symptomatic of her sexual orientation, nor is she a stand-in for bisexual women. What reads as cheap and reductive on the page becomes hyperbolic and cutting in the capable hands of Stone and Verhoeven. The trope of the queer-coded antagonist gets stripped of its subtext and emerges as the cartoon it is, the perfect foil for a ridiculous hothouse thriller. It echoes The Fourth Man, a film Verhoeven has described as Basic Instinct‘s spiritual prequel. Both films star a bisexual author with the stink of death on them. Both films toy with the image of the Hitchcock blonde, turning them into Venus flytraps. What was cheeky allusion in The Fourth Man becomes full-on reference in Basic Instinct. If you’re going to sleaze up Vertigo, you might as well go whole hog; set it in San Francisco, make the male lead a coke-addled cop, and have Kim Novak kill and kill again.
Basic Instinct is a key text in the cycle of coke noir, a lurid paperback thriller needling at the insecurities and failures of the privileged, and in the 80s and 90s, no actor embodied this Fallen Man with more panache than Michael Douglas. No actor embraced his inner asshole with the relish Douglas did at the turn of the 90s. Part of Basic Instinct‘s genius is that it uses Stone, already a 10-year veteran of slashers, fart comedies, and assorted B-movies at this stage of her career, as casting directors used Douglas in the decade bookended by Fatal Attraction and The Game. Douglas and Stone’s characters are blown-out sun-damaged riffs on the classic noir gumshoe/femme fatale combo, but folded into that is not simply a riff on the manipulative ice-queen type, but of the way men see women, specifically women they find alluring. If Basic Instinct is a dark joke at the expense of toxic gender relations, then Catherine Tremell is the set-up.
Derek Godin (@derek_g) is a freelance writer from Montreal, Quebec. He is the co-founder and co-editor of Dim the House Lights, a graduate of Concordia University’s MA Film Studies program and a two-time WWE Intercontinental Champion (only two of these are true).