A Finer Point
Sarah Fonseca on Basic Instinct
In the 1975 film bearing her name, Jeanne Dielman used scissors. In the 1971 and 2017 adaptations of The Beguiled, Miss Martha Farnsworth opted for poisonous mushrooms. In Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), Martha Rosler deployed everything but the kitchen sink: an eggbeater, a fork, a cheese grater, a hamburger press.
In the movies, heroines’ little games of androcide, misandry, and sexual revenge are best played with a home-field advantage. The tiled, tidy perimeter of the domestic kitchen remains a time-honored place for women to master material and man in tandem, through rote, repetitive gestures. Though contentious, this convention persists in reality as readily as it does in cinema; just recall Lorena Bobbitt’s famed carving knife or Corinna Smith’s three fatal bags of sugar and boiling water.
Though it went home empty-handed at the Academy Awards, Paul Verhoeven’s psychosexual hall of mirrors Basic Instinct (1992) remains, if nothing else, worthy of a steel-plated prize for the best use of a kitchen utensil in a motion picture. This cat-and-mouse game between dirty cop Nick Curran (Michael Douglas) and bisexual homicide suspect Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) has, not unlike its femme fatale’s alleged ice pick, pierced its share of nerve centers over the years; recently, Basic Instinct even served as inspiration for a real-life murder, with the culprit spray-painting the offending screwdriver silver to resemble Catherine’s most evocative accessory.
Despite the polarizing responses that Basic Instinct continues to generate—regressive auteur-driven misogyny or well-wrought homage to Hitchcock’s blondes?—its extended glimpses of flesh are underpinned by a surprising amount of auteurist self-restraint and ambiguity. Unlike Adrian Lyne’s erotic thriller Fatal Attraction (1987), in which Douglas was also foiled by a literary minx and to which Basic Instinct is often compared, the Dutch director’s eleventh theatrical feature does not, relievedly, make its leading lady shoulder the most extreme consequence of erotic obsession: death. Nick is similarly spared. Rather, Basic Instinct finds both men and women culpable in a time-honored mating game that has no clear rules barring the foolhardy pursuit of pleasure. In lieu of moral judgment on Adam or Eve, Verhoeven treats death as a banal inevitability that makes sex acts all the more riveting for the living—if not the singular reason for which to live. “(Sex on screen is) much more powerful than words,” the director reasoned in September 1990, around the time news outlets began considering Basic Instinct’s recently unveiled plot with much pearl-clutching: “Sexuality expresses whatever you want to say—hate, tenderness, passion,” he added.
Like the slivers of glass that slip out of illumination just as the viewer begins recognizing their sharpest contours during the opening credits—at once suggesting fragility and strength—the neo-noir considers the modern woman as sleek and ever-shifting. Though beguiling and enigmatic, Catherine is not above tenderness. “It is the softness and sweetness of a woman who is supposed to be all harsh blonde angles, all starched slim dresses, all sangfroid, that makes the movie more than mere exploitation,” the late essayist Elizabeth Wurtzel observed in her 1998 essay collection Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women. In the end, Basic Instinct leaves it up to the viewer to determine guilt, innocence, and the fate of its lovers. Tying loose ends up too tightly would undermine its heart-racing genre tradition—never mind risk making Catherine a total bore.
Accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s crescendoing orchestral-electronic score, Basic Instinct opens in a boudoir with a mirrored ceiling that, like the credits, pleasurably disorient and deceive the eye. A nude woman in ecstasy, face hidden beneath a tousle of blonde hair, is revealed atop her male lover. With ritualistic precision and a white Hermes scarf, she binds him to the wrought iron headboard. As the score reaches its climax, so does the woman; she grasps the bedsheets, exquisitely and discreetly retrieving the slender object concealed beneath them. The blonde rides her lover closer to finality. Suddenly, stainless steel glimmers and slices through the air. His groans turn to wails as it—not quite a blade and certainly not a bullet—pierces his heaving chest and neck. Sixteen wounds later, she collapses atop him, breathless and satiated. It is not until the next sequence—the inept police investigation that also doubles as a bantering meet-cute between washed-up detective and alluring suspect—that the murder weapon, an ice pick, is finally named by a coroner’s assistant in exposition. As if to emphasize the mystique of the murderess’s spear, its naming is similarly delayed in the screenplay’s account of the slaying. Instead, the description focuses on how it moves: It flashes up… it flashes down… and up… and down… and up… and…
What seems suggestively penetrative on screen is confirmed by revisiting Joe Eszterhas’s screenplay. No stranger to provocation, University of the Arts professor, ineffective reactionary, and adept cinephile Camille Paglia was hardly subtle in her identification of ice pick-as-Freudian motif. “The Woman steals Man’s penis and uses it against him!” she rhapsodizes over Johnny Boz’s murder in the commentary track she provided to the 2001 Basic Instinct Special Edition DVD. Nested in a clear blue case embossed with ice shards, this edition also included a gleaming ballpoint pen shaped like the weapon in question, and a main menu cursor that, upon selection, imitates the sound of the utensil piercing skin and bone.
Yet it isn’t the dreaded and démodé notion of penis envy that is evoked by Catherine’s ice p(r)ick; moneyed, beautiful, and an author with an ironclad alibi in the pages of her own novel, the murder suspect has little for which to compensate. Similarly, her alleged choice of object is anything but prone to impotence. Nor does she need to steal what she already owns. While visiting Catherine’s Pacific Heights mansion to inquire about her whereabouts the night of her lover Johnny Boz’s impaling, Nick and his partner Gus (George Dzundza) observe that she, like Boz, owns a colossal Picasso. “Hers is bigger,” Nick cracks suggestively. If this were a film about a woman afflicted with mere penis envy, the Pig-asso, as Gus calls it, would have been a forgery.
Rather, it is the phallic woman of post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory that the ice pick draws to mind: the feminine figure who possesses traditionally masculine attributes in aesthetic or, of greater relevance here, in action. For the subsequent generations who watch the film now, it isn’t implausible that a woman might be phallic, or even boast the organ herself. To the contrary. Sexually hazy noirs like Basic Instinct are the ones most sought out by contemporary audiences, in large part because the lack of answers permits the viewer to discreetly fill in the gaps as she so desires.
When west-coast ACT-UP and Queen Nation activists—incensed by Basic Instinct at face value and justifiably sensitive to lesploitation—confidently mobilized against the picture, they denied themselves a villainess who was very much on their side of the picket line. One memorable sign that appeared at the 1993 Academy Awards protest of the film illustrates this inability to see the forest for the trees. “Kiss My Ice Pick,” it boldly read, wielding Catherine’s alleged murder weapon as she herself might in dialogue. Months earlier in The Village Voice, queer critic B. Ruby Rich broached her community’s vocal, if not misdirected, fury regarding the film, writing, “Basic Instinct was picketed by the self-righteous wing of the queer community (until dykes began to discover how much fun it was).”
In the broad and oft-overlapping strokes that Eszterhas and Verhoeven collaboratively painted of two genders, Catherine is the purpled bruise at their apex, fiercely independent and exhibitionistic, yet equally vulnerable and moved by companionship and its loss. She is a phallic woman moving among phallic women: Hazel Dobkins (Written on the Wind’s Dorothy Malone), the mature murderess to whom Catherine shows nothing but childlike warmth (especially when Hazel condescends to Nick by calling the trigger-happy cop “Shooter”); and Roxy “Rocky” Hardy (Leilani Sarelle), Catherine’s ill-fated ex-con lover, who completes this impenetrable triangle of allegedly androcidal women that Nick weathers.
When Gus and Nick finally locate Catherine, she is the one to grill them by inquiring about the nature of the murder. As Nick divulges the ice pick, Stone plays Catherine precisely as she is written: she closes her eyes a beat and then, still staring out, we see a thin smile. His own grin full of whiskey and slurred profanities, Nick doesn’t give up the investigation. As leads result in dead ends, the cop breaks laws and further jeopardizes his already imperiled job on the force by pursuing something vague yet worlds more alluring than a paltry “case closed” stamp. Catherine invites him into her home and invites herself into his; she taunts him with her blonde companions and her ice pick while preparing a cocktail, and he tries his best to do the same with his hard-boiled masculinity and a bargain basement counterpart to her own utensil. By her very nature, active and throttling, she succeeds in demeaning and arousing him by offering to help the blockhead detective chip block ice in his own spartan studio apartment. Nick, as Basic Instinct cinematographer Jan de Bont put it, betrays his icy masculinity by submitting to the implied danger of his suspect competently maneuvering the weapon right in front of him, and “accepting the danger that she creates.” It might be the bravest thing Nick’s ever done—or the most foolish. Catherine’s ice pick also conjures the orbitoclast of psychiatric infamy; the one that Nurse Mildred Ratched used to render the belligerent R.P. McMurphy pliant and simple in Miloš Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
Eszterhas and Verhoeven melt Nick’s brutish and criminal masculinity as he pursues the person who could end him: that phallic woman, the one who behaves as a man; the one who—so unlike his ex-girlfriend Beth (Jeanne Tripplehorn)—challenges his own boredom, provoking excitement. Though her ice pick has not penetrated him, he has already been lobotomized to the possibility as he crawls into bed with Catherine and acquiesces to a wordless roleplay, or replay, of Boz’s death—complete with Hermes scarf, yet grippingly absent the penultimate ice pick.
Basic Instinct is not, however, a film about the inversion of masculine and feminine roles and the unhinged romantic compatibility that could arise from that, but rather the haphazardly kaleidoscopic rotation through such roles which cannot be predicted, even as the case in question is supposedly solved. And so the film’s greatest moment rests in its final shot of Catherine and Nick returning to bed. He is brimming with passion; she is the most submissive she’s ever been. As Goldsmith’s score cascades to ecstasy once more, the deadly artifact once covertly hidden under bed sheets is now of no concern, though it very well should be. Human tendencies are seldom fixed. Of all the sharp points Basic Instinct makes, its finest is wordless, hidden just out of sight:
There is something under the bed. The CAMERA MOVES CLOSER
towards it. We see it now in CLOSEUP as the bed rustles above...
It is a thin, steel-handled ice pick.
The SONG plays LOUDER and LOUDER, and we—
As Nick and Catherine tousle above, the object below prevails, provoking questions that must go unanswered. Will this sadomasochistic love game last? Who has the upper hand? Who is responsible for the ice pick’s newest home? Which party needs this metallic crutch more; the man who is seldom frightened or the woman who loves provocation? The minutiae of the folie à deux falls on the viewer to ponder; the answers as plentiful and unsettling as the shadows refracted on the wall.