Basic Instinct is often written off as a schlocky 90’s erotic thriller. And it is. When it first came out, it caused massive amounts of outrage for many reasons. Depictions of gay and bisexual people angered their communities. A blatant overuse of sex offended people, and of course, that infamous interrogation scene. At the time, most (even Sharon Stone herself) said that the famous scene was manipulated out of her, implying a loss of prowess, or power. But when I watch Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct, (and I’ll admit I do sometimes), I’m struck by just how powerful and poignant she really is. Now more than ever.
Basic Instinct is a highly underrated film and I’m not afraid to say it. Most of what makes paul verhoeven’s ’92 thriller so good isn’t the plot, or god knows, the dialogue. It’s the female antagonist herself. Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct is probably one of the best, if not the best “femme fatale” of all time. In some ways, you could even call her an anti-hero for all strong women up against a world of men. Played to perfection by Sharon Stone in the role that made her famous, there’s more to her than just a female film vixen. It’s not simply a ferocity for sex, or admitting she actually likes it, (not often common) that makes her powerful. It’s much more. She’s a nuanced person and one of the most interesting character studies you’ll find. Hard to read, and impossible to fully understand. All of which makes her still alluring and interesting, even all these years later.
When we first meet Catherine, she’s sitting quietly on the deck of her gorgeous beach house in a comfy, oversized sweater. Subdued, she’s waiting for the cops, Michael Douglas and George Dzunda, there to tell her that her sometimes lover is dead. After hearing the news she barely flashes a nonchalant smirk. That cunning nonchalance will carry her through the film, and serve as a mental weapon. Both against authority, and the man she may or may not actually fall for later. When she’s called in for questioning, the aforementioned scene commences. But although Basic Instinct is mostly remembered for that moment, it’s actually Catherine in her most obviously manipulative moment. She’s controlling the men with her sexuality. Cops who should be focused on their questions are more fixated on what she’s wearing, or not wearing in this case. She plays with the deflated Nick (Douglas), taunting him and drudging up his past at every turn. Most memorably, she asks if he wants a cigarette. “I quit”, he tells her. “It won’t last”, she responds. Nor will his position as a man who had any confidence in himself or his beliefs.
It’s in other, subtle ways that Tramell’s quiet brilliance shines through. It’s not simply her appearance, which is of course strikingly beautiful. A gorgeous face, iconic blonde hair, and a classic wardrobe almost Grace Kelly-esque. She wears a non revealing white dress, and monochromatic, classy, cream colored outfits to perfection. A hidden sensuality bubbling under the surface of every look. Perhaps the only person to ever make Eileen Fisher sexy. Maybe it’s her occupation as a murder mystery writer. As someone who yearns for that same goal, this aspect of her has always intrigued me. Sometimes I’ve wished her books, Love Hurts, The First Time, and Shooter, about as she describes it, ‘a cop who falls for the wrong woman’ were real novels I could actually devour. So what happens in your new book, Nick asks. “She kills him.”
A magna cum laude double major in literature and psychology proves that besides her wit and knack for getting into people’s heads, she’s also just plain intelligent. There are plenty of terrific thrillers where a woman uses her smarts and her sexuality simultaneously to assess control of a man, or situation. Most notably, Matty Walker in Body Heat, and more recently, Amy Dunne in Gone Girl. But few have ever done it as masterfully as Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. There is no one else like her. A bisexual, rich author who does coke, unapologetically takes men home, and writes books that predict real life events, more specifically, homicides. She plunges an ice pick into a block of ice, procuring cubes for a drink like she’s wrapping a present. Carefully, and with purpose.
In fact, everything Catherine does has purpose. Even when she tells Nick she “doesn’t give any rules. I go with the flow.” From the initial interrogation scene, to the way she uses her sexuality as a tool to manipulate and control a situation. Even her name is a tool itself. A tramell is defined as a restriction to someone’s freedom. She practices a form of self preservation that allows her to get away with anything, feel little, and ensure that she always ends up on top, literally.
In the final scene, (considered both twist, and alternate ending), and one of the best in film, we’re manipulated one more time. It’s impossible to ever know what Catherine is thinking and that’s not going to change when the story fades to black. This isn’t a tidy ending wrapped in a bow. As has always been the case with her, the pleasure is in the game. The unknowing, and the power to make people wonder. And now, she’s doing it to us, the viewer. Nick can’t say with certainty whether the person sleeping next to him is truly dangerous or not. And who hasn’t wondered about the real thoughts of their spouse, or lover. That doubt makes Catherine’s character indelible in our brain. In the end, there is no true resolve. There is only mystery.