Look at her: she’s dangerous, sexy, probably lying to you, and lookin’ good doing it. Who is she? Well, she’s probably Sharon Stone or Demi Moore, and it’s most likely around 1994. I’ve never quite been able to figure out why, but there seems to have been a spate of big-budget Sexy Dangerous Lady movies in the ’90s. The answer is probably that Hollywood likes to maul a trend to death as soon as it garners one mega-profitable hit (see, for example, the spate of “disaster” flicks that sprouted up in the 1970s; The Poseidon Adventure (1972) is a personal favourite of mine). In any case, I’ve frequently and confidently placed Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992) in my list of all-time favourite films (like, for example, here – scroll down to me at the bottom), so perhaps it’s time to explore the trope in deeper detail.
When you Google an admittedly facile term like “films like Basic Instinct ,” you get a variety of results that are not necessarily all accurate (thanks again, internet). While some fantastic films no doubt belong in the category, such as the formidably kitschy erotico-violent work of Brian de Palma — say, Body Double (1984) — as well as Disclosure (1994), The Crush (1993), and Sliver (1993), others are confusingly lumped in to this admittedly foggy category simply because of, say, sex. Or , more specifically, sexualized women. On many forums, blogs, and lists that aim to recommend films like Basic Instinct , two film are notable recurrences, and yet neither one is anything like the Verhoeven masterpiece: Fatal Attraction (1987) and Indecent Proposal (1993). Let’s, as they say in high school literature classes, compare and contrast.
We begin with the alpha example, the quintessential perfect prototype of what every other film in this category attempts (and always somewhat fails) to be: Basic Instinct . As you may already be able to tell, I cannot speak highly enough of this film. For those who haven’t seen it, you probably immediately think of the infamous leg-uncrossing scene; and yes, that’s powerful stuff, especially in a media landscape in which women’s bodies are carelessly exposed, but in very particular ways (ahem, anything but the vagina!) But what you may not know is what the film is really about. Four words: homicidal lesbian cult mystery. The film is stuffed with meta-text (Sharon Stone plays a crime novelist with a pseudonym whose protagonist kills her sexual prey with ice picks; she also happens to own an ice pick, and may or may not use it against the detective she seduces while he investigates her, one creepily played by Michael Douglas). The film is incredibly sophisticated, admirably open-ended (for a Hollywood product), suspenseful, sexy, and confusingly feminist (or is it?). Now for the copycats: Disclosure is also about a woman who’s “out to get” (ie. ruin) a man (again, Michael Douglas — Mr. Douglas re-appears in Fatal Attraction ; guess he was in high demand for mid-’90s erotic thrillers). But Disclosure is, at best, a clumsy attempt at what Basic Instinct accomplished. Demi Moore plays Douglas’ boss, who blackmails and forces him into a sexual relationship with her, but the motivations are always thin (she’s just a bad person?) and the execution is too in-your-face (just look at the film’s original poster — we get it, we get it. Basic Instinct ‘s poster is relatively more nuanced.)
A perhaps more accurate comparison to Basic Instinct is Body Double , in which an innocent and vulnerable struggling actor is duped by a hypersexualized woman with a mysterious double (or triple?) identity. Both Basic Instinct and Body Doubl e remain open-ended, and countless academic and popular articles have attempted to guess what the “true” ending or meaning of the films is intended to be. But this is to miss the point: both films foreground the mystery, suspense, and power of the woman over the mystery, suspense, and power of the ideally cohesive narrative. Who is she and what does she want from me? Why is she doing this to me? Of course, the femme fatale stereotype is hardly fresh feminist ground (and it’s no doubt problematic on many levels), but the idea of a multi-layered, tough, unknowable, and fiercely intelligent woman in a Hollywood film is admittedly still a revolutionary one. In Sliver , Stone returns as the unknown object of mystery and desire, except this time we are led to believe she is “innocent” (as opposed to her character in Basic Instinct who looks from the start like the proverbial canary-eating cat.) In all three films ( Sliver, Body Double, and Basic Instinct), the female protagonist is, at the outset, the subject of investigation (she is spied on, criminally charged, hauled in for questioning, video-recorded without her knowledge, etc.) and yet she emerges, by the films’ ends, as the ultimate unknowable mystery, the crux of the dangling narrative conclusion (a dangling conclusion which, unfortunately, produces such unpalatable sequels as Basic Instinct 2 — blech. Don’t bother.)
Now for the erroneously classified brethren: somehow or other, Fatal Attraction is most often lumped into the category which I’m exploring here, and I can’t think of a more unfortunate and wrong-headed cultural stereotype. Glenn Close’s character has a one-night sex romp with the married Michael Douglas character and proceeds to attempt to destroy his life and his family out of a proclaimed “love” (ie. delusional obsession) with him. But, look: she’s not a higher-level manipulator; she’s not a multi-layered, mysterious criminal mastermind like the incredible Catherine Trammel (Stone in Basic Instinct ). She’s a clearly mentally unhealthy, desperate, and self-loathing woman in crisis, and it’s sad and inaccurate that we lump this type of woman in with the sharp, icy, and unforgettably clever protagonistes I’ve attempted to explore here.
The lessons to be learned here: 1) don’t take internet commenters’ movie lists without skepticism (but you already knew that), 2) watch Basic Instinct immediately (and watch it again if you’ve already seen it), and 3) always — ALWAYS — sleep with an ice pick under your bed if you’re sexually active. You never know when it might come in handy.
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