On the 25th anniversary of Verhoeven’s erotic thriller, we celebrate everything other than Sharon Stone’s legs
25 years after the release of Basic Instinct, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven is still courting controversy and dividing audiences as masterfully as he did in 1992. Elle (2016) is not wholly unlike Basic Instinct in that it features a dangerous but fascinating female protagonist playing games with people. It’s also not unlike Basic Instinct in that its content has had viewers and critics praising Verhoeven for his bravery, criticising him for his insensitivity, and kind of just begging him to explain himself. And it’s true: Verhoeven is not for everyone. His campy, gory, sexy, and often downright offensive films tread the grey area of morality. They don’t tell you how to feel, they are funny where perhaps you feel they shouldn’t be, and their moments of actual genius often feel like an accident. But none of that matters to Verhoeven.
Now, references to Verhoeven are so ingrained in the cultural canon that it’s easy to forget which ones he’s responsible for. It’s also easy to forget the initial furor that surrounded Basic Instinct; its gratuitous sex, bloody violence, and perceived homophobia swept up a panic similar to the one surrounding Elle today. It was the catalyst for Sharon Stone’s career and for years of schlocky straight-to-video erotic thrillers.
The film is best known for one scene that even those among us who’ve never heard of Verhoeven will have seen reiterated across all areas of TV, perhaps most recently in Girls: the leg uncross. In fact, the scene – or moment, even – wherein Sharon Stone uncrosses her legs to reveal she’s got no underwear on, is so popular that it’s been named the “most-paused” movie moment. Google “Basic Instinct scene”, and you'll only find articles on that one, fleeting glimpse. And yeah, we get it, film audiences are gross and it was extremely shocking to see ladyparts onscreen in 1992. But with a film as good as Basic Instinct and a performance as iconic as Stone's, it's a crime to reduce either to just that one moment. To mark the anniversary of Basic Instinct and to give Verhoeven, Stone, and my favourite femme fatale Catherine Tramell the credit they deserve, we’ve rounded up the best scenes that are literally anything else.
CATHERINE’S INTERROGATION (24:22)
To reduce the interrogation scene, let alone the entire film, to a potential flash of fanny is to do Sharon Stone a disservice. The entirety of the scene, which runs for a full five minutes, is a masterclass from Verhoeven on building tension, and one from Stone on well and truly establishing her character. It’s early in the film, and despite Catherine already asserting herself as a master manipulator, this is the point where she gets to really shine. Tramell, a suspect in the murder of Johnny Boz, is being interrogated by Nick and the other officers. She goes willingly, complies entirely, and says everything that they expected her to say. She’s smart and reminds them repeatedly that she likes playing with people.
After stating that she has nothing to hide, she immediately lights up a cigarette; when asked not to smoke, she says, “what are you going to do? Charge me with smoking?” undermining the officers and declaring that she is in charge of this and all situations. Tramell masterfully plays on everything that she knows about Nick, and quite quickly the scene escalates from a quiet back and forth interrogation to switching rapidly between shots, everyone speaking quickly, and an out-of-control camp comedy feel that Verhoeven is inimitably great at. She offers to take a lie detector test and passes, while looking directly into the camera. Her entire play is to unsettle the officers, seduce Nick, and retain complete control.
An officer notes: “Either she’s telling the truth, or I’ve never seen anyone like her”.
THE BEACH HOUSE (10:40)
After a false start in which officers believe they’ve found Catherine only to learn it’s actually her girlfriend, they go to her San Francisco beach house. The house is beautiful; the first thing we learn is that Catherine is very rich. She doesn’t open the door to the officers; she waits for them to come to her, because she’s in charge. They find her sitting on the balcony, smoking and staring out to sea like a naval widow. Despite her apparent position as a femme fatale, Catherine doesn’t have a vampish look; when we first see her, she’s in loungewear, with little makeup and semi–messy hair. She still looks stunning, but her dressed down look throughout the film is intentional; it lures Nick and us into a false sense of insecurity. She looks young, fresh, and as if she is completely incapable of murder. When Nick calls her name she turns around with a smirk; she doesn’t take this seriously. She was expecting them. Her first words are, “I know who you are”, directly to Nick, showing us and him that she knows everything about him, already.
Catherine then guesses immediately that Boz was murdered before they tell her, and she refuses to even appear sad; when the officers ask about her relationship to Boz, responds, “I wasn’t dating him. I was fucking him”. The entire scene, through to when they head inside and Catherine gets changed in full view of Nick, is all about her establishing dominance and proving just how unflappable she is.
MURDER BY ICEPICK (02:30)
Basic Instinct very clearly sets its intention from the outset, laying down the tone not only for controversially graphic depictions of sex, death, and sex + death on screen, but for two hours of camp. It opens on two people – a man and an unseen blonde woman – having sex. We are shown them initially in a ceiling mirror; a blonde woman is on top, her face obscured – she may or may not be Sharon Stone. She is on top because she is entirely in control; a strong sign of how things will progress throughout the film. The sex itself is melodramatic, breathy, thrashing; evocative of that other famous Verhoeven sex scene (the pool one in Showgirls) and making me question just where he learned that that is how sex looks.
This goes on for a little while, until the woman pulls out an icepick and stabs the man in the neck to the sounds of a very melodramatic score by the revered composer Jerry Goldsmith. The man’s screams are exaggerated in a way that’s usually reserved for the women of horror, which is fitting considering Basic Instinct’s intended subversion of gender roles. The whole scene is a very promising sign of all the camp, bloody, sexy stuff that’s to come.
JACK AND COKE (62:27)
The only truly great thing about Basic Instinct that doesn’t come directly from Sharon Stone is the back-and-forth power play. The film and Verhoeven have been accused of being sloppy, and perhaps that’s fair, but it’s watertight where it counts. Catherine and Nick are constantly battling it out for the upper hand, and every so often he seems to think he has it. When Catherine waits outside Nick’s house wearing another deliberately non-threatening outfit of American Apparel castoffs, Nick attempts to assert himself. He says, “I like you. Do you want to go upstairs and have a drink?”, as you might to a normal sex interest that you don’t suspect has been doing murders.
When they get inside Catherine reminds him, “pretty soon I’ll know you better than you know yourself”. He claims unpredictability and tries to retain a shred of masculinity, but Catherine mocks his home. She will let him have the illusion of control for a split second before she snatches it back; she is a master manipulator of all situations. He pulls an icepick from the drawer and jokes, “I was expecting you”, another reminder that Basic Instinct is about murder, but it’s ultimately very silly. Catherine is dangerous, but she’s playful. She takes over from him hacking the ice apart and the music takes a turn; it’s ominous, now. We should be scared of Catherine. Their banter is still euphemistic, campy, over the top; there are jokes about cocaine vs. Pepsi, but there are darker undertones. Repeatedly Nick tries to reinforce his power over Catherine, and repeatedly she turns the tables to remind him that she knows everything about him, and that he’s in danger. When his officer friends show up at the end of the scene, they remind him: “everyone she plays with dies”.
THE DETECTIVE IS DEAD (108:13)
To this point Nick has somehow convinced himself that Catherine loves him and they’re going to be together forever; that they will, “fuck like minks, raise rugrats, and live happily ever after”. Despite her repeatedly shooting down his affections and mocking him for calling their first encounter, “the fuck of the century”, he well and truly believes that he’s going to not only marry Catherine, but tame her and change the narrative.
This changes when he shows up at her house to find her printing the final copy of her book about him. As the pages print he sees that his character dies at the end, something that he should have expected all along. Catherine comes downstairs and he says, “I miss you”, to which she weakly laughs. He pushes with her, trying to touch her, but she reminds him again that the character is dead; she no longer needs him around for inspiration or research. He can be cast off now, even though he ruined his entire life in his pursuit of her. He gets angry at her, because he believed all along that he could somehow keep her with him. Depending on how you read the ending, she either betrays herself and her character or fully completes her story; as they reunite and she reaches under the bed for an icepick, we don’t know whether Shooter dies or not. Knowing Catherine, though, he most certainly does.