As a representation of lesbians and bisexual women, Basic Instinct is, without question, problematic.
On the one hand, there is the powerful, iconic Catherine Tramell. On the other, the male cop she’s sleeping with kills her female lover.
(Granted, she tried to kill him first, but we still have a dead lesbian, and that’s never a good thing.)
The relationship between Catherine and Roxy isn’t developed well enough in the film for viewers to truly understand whether the two are in love, or if Catherine is also manipulating Roxy. In any event, there is no lesbian happy ending.
This is, of course the film that caused one of the biggest uproars in the gay community at the time of its 1992 release. When details about the movie began to leak, gay activists organized protests, claiming that the film bolstered negative lesbian stereotypes. There was even an outcry for the filmmakers to change the character of Nick Curran to a lesbian cop, which would have changed the dynamic between Nick and Catherine considerably, possibly wiping out any misogynist or anti-gay messages entirely.
Even the film’s writer, Joe Eszterhas, was open to making gay-positive changes to the script. But Verhoeven famously resisted, claiming that the movie was actually pro-gay, offering a reading that the characters’ sexualities were a nonissue.
The good news? Stereotypes in film of lesbians and bisexual women as killers and psychopaths were finally discussed openly in the media — by straight and gay people alike.
Politics aside, it’s difficult to dislike a film that looks this good. The production values — particularly the cinematography — are outstanding. Labyrinthine interiors and voyeuristic "peeping" shots only serve to add to the rich, manipulative character of Catherine Tramell, indicating that you only see what she wants you to see.
The sweeping vistas of San Francisco reference classic Hitchcock (master of the sexual angst-ridden thriller), and the dark, seamy night shots evoke film noir. While the characters that populate this landscape are deeply flawed, bordering on evil, the shots themselves are absolutely gorgeous.
Likewise, its individual scenes are all quite memorable, even iconic. From the shocking (for 1992) first scene, to the (also shocking) leg cross, to the sexy coked-up club scene (complete with a little girl-on-girl action in the bathroom, apparently a popular trend in lesbian films), every segment in the movie has a life of its own. The sequences are even put together beautifully, evoking a carefully composed puzzle; the sense of intrigue and mystery remain just as important as the heat.
Carrying us through the action is a tremendous, star-making performance from Sharon Stone, who plays Catherine with the perfect blend of class and ruthlessness. She is the ultimate femme fatale. Michael Douglas is also excellent as Nick, possibly the world’s slimiest alpha-male cop.
Supporting players Tripplehorn, Sarelle and Dzundza are all quite good, but this is Stone’s show, and she knows it.
The film is best viewed as a guilty pleasure, a thriller that borders on camp, but in the end, it just looks too pretty to be dismissed. Basic Instinct is a bold mash-up of Hitchcock, European sexual sensibilities and the most classic of film noir villainesses, and it sparked conversations on LGBT representation in popular culture that had previously gone unheard or ignored.
It’s offensive, it’s sexy, and it’s unforgettable.