Comedy of Eros: Verhoeven’s Lurid Pair

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The cultural excavations of the 80s have reached near the bottom of that embarrassing crevasse (parachute pants! purple reigns!). It’s only logical then that our voracious fashion-media-money machine is spreading out to mine new (old) territory. Welcome to the 90s redux, ladies and gentles. To go along with your neo-grunge, what finer exemplars of 90s cinema can you have than two of director Paul Verhoeven’s trash classics, Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995)? As part of their retrospective Flesh + Blood: The Films of Paul Verhoeven, TIFF is showcasing both movies this week. And what a pair they are, chockablock with lurid dialogue, fevered plotting, twists and contortions and I’m not even talking about the sex. Join me for a peek on the seamy side of 90s life, after the jump.

Maybe it seems quaintly outré now, with the likes of Springbreakers (2013) getting all up in our theatrical grills, but at the time of its release Basic Instinct was divisive and controversial. And a smash hit, doing $352 million worldwide. Its cunning, exploitive take on the relations of men and women, and especially of women and women, caused protests, picketing and boycotts. Gay rights activists and feminists were furious with the way women in the film were portrayed largely as lesbian psychopaths. They weren’t wrong, though one could argue that the men in the movie were just as horrific. Really, in keeping with the title, most of the characters’ motives are base, with enough smutty language, casual drugs and exposed skin to back it up.

If you’ve somehow over the years missed the plot, Hollywood’s foremost walking penis Michael Douglas is detective Nick Curran, investigating the murder of a one-time rock’n’roller stabbed to death with an ice pick during sex. The only suspect is the girlfriend Catherine Tramell, played with riveting star-making edge by Sharon Stone. Tramell is a crime novelist, and the twist is that her last novel details the circumstances of the crime exactly, but it was published months before the murder took place. Is someone trying to frame her for the murder by copying the book’s details, or did she write the book as preventative protection? After all who would be crazy enough to act out all the specifics of a murder they’d themselves written? It’s a pretty thin defence, but it hardly matters. Verhoeven and his screenwriter collaborator Joe Eszterhas yank on the right levers to keep this violent sex machine in motion. It’s all here: Tramell’s over-protective lesbian lover, Curran’s escalating aggression in his own sex-games with his therapist-lover, and Stone’s brilliant portrayal of the manipulative socialite author. The classic interrogation sequence between the police and suspect Tramell features the original upskirt shot, one of the most memorable sequences of all 90s cinema as she turns the tables on her leering would-be interrogators.

Sharon Stone flashes more than her wit as Catherine Tramell.
Sharon Stone flashes more than her wit as Catherine Tramell.

Eszterhas’s dialogue is abrasively profane, and Verhoeven choreographs each spasmodic coupling with expert menace; it’s like Hitchcock soft-core. Over it all plays Jerry Goldsmith’s swooping score, its lush melodramatic strains thrusting with the frenetic action onscreen. It’s almost impossible to take seriously, actually, though the whodunnit thriller elements are effective in their ludicrous twists and turns. By the time we hit the irresolution of the ambiguous ending, the whole enterprise goes up in a post-coital smoke; spent, with the ephemeral satisfaction of something that’s really bad for you.

Showgirls one-ups (one-downs?) Basic Instinct on almost every level. Eszterhas again scripts for Verhoeven, this time repurposing All About Eve (1950) into a pulpy, prurient tale of getting ahead at all costs. Ironically, Elizabeth Berkley savages her real-life career in the role of Nomi, a young dancer who comes to Las Vegas to find fortune and fame. Soon she’s working as a stripper at the Cheetah club, but fate brings her into the orbit of Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), the diva star of the “classier” topless review Goddess at the Stardust Casino. Not long after she’s making the move to dancing in the Goddess company, and swimming in the shark-infested waters of Vegas climbers and money. At least it looks sort of like swimming, whatever she’s doing thrashing around in Kyle McClachlan’s swimming pool as they get it on, really the high-water mark for Verhoeven’s acrobatic sex-scenes.

As dancer Nomi, Elizabeth Berkley proves winter or no, pole-licking is a bad idea.
As dancer Nomi, Elizabeth Berkley proves winter or no, pole-licking is a bad idea.

Nomi’s indignant and mercurial, forever ducking the whore-label other characters keep lobbing her way. This in spite of the lap-dances and back-stabbing that set her on the path to ever greater success. Which is perhaps the best way to understand Showgirls, as a satire of the relentless assholery that a career in show business appears to demand. Only when her best friend is raped by visiting rockstar Andrew Carver does Nomi at last question the depravity and complicity of the Vegas fame complex. But even that’s undercut as she heads out to try for better luck in Los Angeles.

Showgirls was a dismal failure in its first release, but found life as a cult-hit on DVD and second-run, ultimately earning over $100 million on home video and making MGM’s top 20 all-time bestsellers. Both it and Basic Instinct have been reclamation projects of late, with critics piling on to paint the movies as works of subversive genius. Or maybe Verhoeven is simply a misanthrope who knows his audience likes their cake with a little venal frosting, and he’s happy to lay it on thick. Basic Instinct is the better film (by, say, an ice-pick), while Showgirls is a neck-wrenching car wreck of a movie. However deliberate its construction, even as an intentional act of arch camp, Showgirls is fromage of the ripest bouquet. If you can leave your politics at the theatre door, they’re hilarious. If you can’t, you’re welcome to your indignation. But rest assured, Verhoeven’s laughing all the way to the bank.

Basic Instinct screens with a pristine archival print on Thursday, March 13th at 9:15 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Showgirls appears on Friday, March 14th at 10pm, introduced by Toronto film critic Adam Nayman, who will also be present beforehand to sign copies of his upcoming book It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls. For information and tickets on the whole Flesh + Blood: The Films of Paul Verhoeven retrospective, see here.

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