By D.K. Holm
March 28, 2006
[nota bene: The following column, by necessity, contains some spoilers! If you don't want to know the ending of the movies mentioned, don't read on.]
BASIC INSTINCT 2
Basic Instinct 2 is another entry in that interesting phenomenon, the sequel that appears many, many years later when no one cares. In that regard, then, the film is more interesting as a financial phenomenon, as an indicium of corporate confusion, greed, and shortsightedness. Fortunately, Basic Instinct 2 has slightly more to recommend it but not much.
Principal among its few virtues I would put Sharon Stone's smirk. There is something sublimely sexy, to me at least, about that smirk. It rests under her incredible cheekbones. It causes fascinating little wrinkles near the corners of her mouth. It makes her eyes sometimes slit into a panther's concentrated predatory leer. Has anyone on the big screen since the silent era embodied confident female lust with the power and conviction of Stone? Maybe Ellen Barkin comes close, but she's ultimately more suitable for the role of a wearied barroom moll. Stone seems ageless, and those cheekbones and that hair, and those shoulders render her the ultimate trophy wife, but one with a dire agenda of her own. There is also a softness and a wit about her that in another context or age might have made her a rival to Grace Kelly, but we rarely see that Stone, and in any case, at least with this film, she has chosen to go along the already established reputation.
The history and reception of the first Basic Instinct is well known and elucidated in numerous books (including Linda Williams's new history of erotic thrillers, The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema, one of the best film books of last year). It was a collaboration between the over-the-top director Paul Verhoeven and the then can-do-no-wrong screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. Protest by the gay community only fueled interest, though it probably made less money than it would have without the controversy ($117 million off a $49 million dollar budget). It was produced by the then-existent Carolco Pictures, which made many films with Verhoeven, as well as James Cameron and other big action directors, and the also then-existent Tri-Star (later absorbed into Columbia).
Perhaps attempting to restore themselves to previous glory, Carolco's Mario Kassar and Andrew G. Vajna, 14 years later, drew upon what I guess is their ownership of the characters and title, and after much, much negotiation with Stone, conceived of a sequel (a sequel of some kind or another has been in the works since the film's release in 1992). Thus the film joins that small cadre of lightyear spaced sequels that includes Phantasm II (nine years after the original), and Force 10 from Navarone (16 years after its progenitor),
I happen to love both Basic Instinct and Showgirls, not despite their excesses but because of them, and not because of Eszterhas but because of Verhoeven and his high craftsmanship. He (along with his team) is a master of camera placement and edit point. They are not camp classics to me but rather highly moral social satires on American excess, with the morality embedded in the humorous excess.
Sadly, Kassar and Vajna didn't seem to understand their own product. They actually thought it was a "camp classic." I guess the 14-year delay in the appearance of the sequel was due to their inability to find anyone who agreed with them.
After this historically long search, Kassar and Vajna ended up with Leora Barish, who wrote Desperately Seeking Susan and directed Venus Rising way back in 1995 (a chaotic distopian tale which, I am surprised to recall, I have actually seen; Joe Bob Briggs is one of the few others) and Barish's Venus Rising co-auteur Henry Bean, most famous for The Believer. The story line they have come up with is both a replication of and a variant on the well-known original.
Catherine Tramell returns, now transplanted to London. This seems only natural. Given that Tramell is a sublimated version of a dominatrix, or maybe that should be a social version of a dominatrix, she should naturally gravitate back to that very Vatican of le vice anglaise. The film opens with her speeding across London driving a very fast car. I couldn't identify it but in the film's police-interrogation-second-scene she mentions the make and the make of her replacement car, for all the auto buffs out there. The reason she is in a police interrogation is because while speeding down the unnaturally empty streets masturbating while a world famous soccer star is sitting overdosed beside her the car went off the rails and splashed into the Thames. Tramell was able to save herself but her car-mate had a little trouble unbuckling and subsequently drowned, Tramell looking down on him dispassionately, like Michael Myers, as she rises to the surface.
This, by the way, is the last action, in the typical Hollywood sense of the term, you're going to see for the rest of the movie.
Tramell proceeds to get under the skin of her interrogator, Roy Washburn (David Thewlis), who is apparently unused to murder suspects taking a sardonic attitude about their complicity in someone's death. He insists that his team of subordinates find something, anything that will allow him to charge her with murder. Some evidence is duly found.
In preparation for the trial, Scotland Yard insists that Tramell interview with psychiatrist Dr. Michael Glass (David Morrissey, who in real life is married to the granddaughter of Sigmund Freud) for evaluation. Tramell almost instantly begins her mindfucking games and Glass, along with the viewer, is never quite sure when she is telling the truth or setting up some elaborate trap that will spring in the near future.
Glass is of course attracted to her but also suspicious. When she beats the murder rap he takes her on as a patient (she wants to be cured of her "risk addiction," which used to be the film's subtitle). Meanwhile his own life is in something of a ruckus. He is "up" for some vague post connected with a psychoanalytic organization, to which he is guided by his mentor, Milena Gardosh (Charlotte Rampling, here in an expanded version of the first film's revival of a femme fatale to match Tramell, Dorothy Malone). Meanwhile, Glass's wife (Indira Varma), has been sleeping with a sleazy journalist named Adam Towers (Hugh Dancy), whose name is another iteration of the penile building theme of the film. But more about that in a second. Towers knows more now than he should about a case that Glass fucked up a few years before and which threatens his status as a shrink.
Glass spends most of his time irritated with Tramell because she is smoking in unauthorized settings. This is just one of several shout outs to the first film, which also include a modified version of Stone's famous beaver flash, this time prophylactically shielded by a black skirt as she sits backwards on a chair. She's also shown using an expensive ice pick and looking pensive.
The viewer also gets bogged down in the repetition of scenes. It seems that Glass is forever angry about something and showing up unexpectedly at Catherine's loft, or suddenly in front of his wife with little seeming motivation. It's one of those "arrivals and departures" movies, built around people coming and going, not staying and talking. Many of the choices promote boredom and predictability. For example, when Towers shows up for the first time you know instantly that he is going to die. He is scruffy, ill-kempt, aggressive, shorter than Glass, and a needler, someone who needs to be taken down a peg. It would have been so much more interesting if the filmmakers had chosen to go the counter-intuitive route, to make him quiet, conservative, subtly evil rather than blaringly wearing a bullseye on his back. On the other hand, there is a nice consistency of imagery involved, starting with the river she plunges into at the start and the hot tub Glass attempts to drown her in at the end, though that last sequence might have been an odd reference back to Showgirls.
As usual, Tramell, who writes under the name Wolfe for reasons that I can't remember from the first movie, is "researching" a murder novel (the only truly murderous mystery writer I can think of is Anne Perry, subject of Heavenly Creatures). Soon, as a seeming inevitable consequence, people start dying around Glass. His nemesis Towers is found dead in bed the result of sexual asphyxiation. Later Glass's wife has her throat slashed in a disco bathroom (remember this death; it becomes the focus of discussion a few spoiling 'grafs from now). Meanwhile, Glass and Tramell finally bump uglies, the camera tracking in on them from around a corner as they writhe in a typically Basic Instinct sized gargantuan bed.
Bigness was one of the points of the first film. By dipping into the lifestyles of super rich hedonists with few if any moral qualms, Verhoeven and Eszterhas were making satiric points about American excess, attractive to everyone regardless of how much even some ascetic recluse might protest against it. So everything has to be big, expensive.
But to Kassar and Vajna, and to the director Michael Caton-Jones (Scandal, This Boy's Life, City by the Sea), they match the bigness to the rampant Red Shoes Diary sexuality, not to consumerism or selfishness. The bed has to be the size of a garage door, and Tramell's watch has to be one of those bejeweled behemoths that weigh as much as a dumbbell. Even bathrooms take up an acre in any given rich person's home. When Glass's office appears on the screen, it is huge and modern, all glass and chrome. It's housed in a building that made the audience I saw it with laugh, because they thought it "symbolized" a penis. I'm sure it's a famous British building and I am awaiting the informed review that will identify it, but to me it looked more like a Faberge Egg, rounded and blunt and overly jeweled. [Note: Sunday, 2 April: The mystery of the Glass office building, if not the cars, is solved. The building in question is the Swiss Re headquarters at 30 St. Mary Axe, London, a 40-story ecological wonder finished in 2004. More about the building can be found at the Foster and Partners website.]
Tramell is frequently introduced or associated with her shoes. Given the frosting on his door window it's the first thing Glass sees when she arrives for a session, and it's the first thing he and we see when he first invades her split level penthouse apartment. During one of their sessions he can't take his eyes off her fuck me shoes with eight or nine gladiator straps coiled up her ankles. It's all part of her coolly seething dominatrix spirit, seemingly unconscious but suspiciously calculated. In fact, in a later scene, Glass follows Tramell to some sleazy orgiastic building more likely to be found up an alley in Amsterdam than London where he breaks into the wrong room where a Thai domme is practicing her trade. The presence of the literal dominatrix makes Tramell's domination arts appear subtler.
The script attempts to twist the knot around Glass's neck, at one point literally, until he seems destined to go to jail for multiple murders arranged by the conniving Tramell just for sport. The ending especially evoked laughter among the critics I saw it with. It all culminates in a complex noisy tableau of corpse and injured bodies and Glass screaming that he is innocent as he stares hard at Tramell, who has now formed an alliance with Gardosh. The audience of 12 critics especially liked the way Thewlis died, spouting a few words ("Don't believe anything she says") before finally expiring by letting his head flop dramatically to the right, like a cowpoke in a silent film.
But it soon comes to pass that Barish and Bean are a tad more ambitious than the intentionally campy and innuendo-ridden dialogue suggests. They aspire to create an unreliable narrator. Mostly we are in the viewpoint of Glass, so he becomes the de facto "narrator" of the film, and so when we learn that it is indeed he who has committed all the murders in order to rid himself of pesky competitors and irritants, it undermines everything that we have seen before, especially the murder of his wife in the disco bathroom stall, wherein we are shown Glass explicitly discovering her body, not slashing it. Nothing like this has been done since Agatha Christie's Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, in which the book's first person narrator turns out to be the killer, having carefully eliding the clues to his guilt until he confesses everything under the scrutiny of Poirot.
Hitchcock tried something daringly similar in Stage Fright by using a flashback that lied, and he was roundly criticized for this, if memory serves, or is reputed to have been criticized, or maybe he just chastised himself in the Truffaut interview book for a failed experiment. There might have been a way to ferret out such a trick without bald-facedly lying or misleading the viewer. But there is another urge here, one that you see in soap operas, comics, professional wrestling, and TV shows all the time.
That is the urge to pretty up a popular villain. According to pop folklore, villains are often more interesting than heroes. Here, Catherine Tramell appears to have attained the level of a supervillain, like Darth Vader, who, out of something akin to fan necessity, must be "humanized." Stone may have had something to do with this. The movie is ambiguous about whether Tramell actually killed Nick Curren in the first film (though it does affirm that he is indeed dead). She may have given the writers marching orders, contingent on her participation, that Tramell not be the villain, finally. Instead, she's the sleuth, setting up a counter-plot that ends up exposing Glass. What Barish and Bean and Kassar and Vajna have done is played with some of the basic rules of cinema, for not particularly lofty purposes. It's a good idea, though, and I'm waiting for someone to do it differently and better.
Here is my audio review of BASIC INSTINCT.
From Theron Neel:
"I'm glad the first season of She Spies has been collected. It was a very funny show that was more concerned about sending up the sexy spy genre than thrilling us with action. The bad news is that somewhere along the way (in the second season, I believe), the powers that be decided She Spies should morph into a mainstream action drama. Carlos Jacott's character was replaced with a "serious" character, and the fun was drained from the show. This left us with a below-average spy show. I believe it's out of production now. All the better. But, for a while, She Spies was an overlooked gem."
And incidentally, if you are interested in KILL BILL, you might find my new book, KILL BILL: AN UNOFFICIAL CASEBOOK useful. It is now available in fine bookstores everywhere, or from Amazon.
Not only that, I've got a new book out on an aspect of film noir I call film soleil, titled simply FILM SOLEIL. It is sure to alter film criticism as we know it to its very core. Order it now!
And if you are interested in what I sound like, I can be heard on KBOO radio (90.7 FM) the second and the fourth Wednesday of the month, at 9 AM in the morning (Pacific Standard Time) on Ed Goldberg's show MOVIE TALK along with Dawn Taylor. It's available via streaming audio (in 20 Kbps Stereo). The next broadcast is Wednesday, April 12th, at 9 AM.
COMING SOON: Oscar winners on DVD, Val Lewton, a package of Hitchcock movies and TV shows, REMINGTON STEEL and other TV mystery shows, the third annual DVD Tray of Horror, and more!
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