Boy, Can She Pick 'Em

Washington City Paper | April 7, 2006
Beginning with 1985’s Jagged Edge, screenwriter Joe Eszterhas enjoyed a triumphant decadelong run, peddling treachery, murder, and sex as violence. It was only when he tried to sell sex as sex that the American media suddenly decided to expose Eszterhas as a panderer. Showgirls was indeed a bad movie, but so were most of the others that bore the writer’s credit, including his most risqué success, 1992’s Basic Instinct.

Eszterhas didn’t have anything to do with Basic Instinct 2, but its makers have clearly studied the screenwriter’s work. In fact, this long-delayed sequel is as indebted to another Eszterhas script, Sliver, as to the original Instinct. All three movies are about people who like to kill almost as much as they like to fuck, but only Sliver and the second Instinct share a fascination with the erotic power of glass-clad skyscrapers.

The new movie opens in another ready-made metaphor for sex and power, a racing sports car, as glamorously sociopathic sex-thriller novelist Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) speeds through a modernistic London, a drugged soccer star in the passenger seat. With Catherine in full control of the apparently kinky scenario, she has an orgasm, the car splashes into the Thames, and the footballer drowns. Exactly how all these things could happen so neatly is unclear, which makes the scene an ideal setup for what follows.

Arrested for murder, Catherine is evaluated by a court-appointed psychiatrist, Dr. Michael Glass (David Morrissey), who proclaims she has a “risk addiction.” Catherine seems to like this diagnosis, because once she’s released, she moves in on Michael. He becomes the equivalent of the Michael Douglas character in the first film, unable to resist Catherine’s brazen mind—or body—games, even though he should know better. (The audience sure does, which is one reason the movie has been greeted with weary disdain.)

As soon as Michael agrees to take her as a patient—an obvious conflict of interest, given that he’s already evaluated her for the court—a new scenario begins to revolve around him. Catherine teases Michael sexually, but that’s not the half of it. She also stage-manages a personal and professional collapse—Michael, too, is being taken for a ride—that involves the shrink’s ex-wife Denise (Indira Varma), her investigative-reporter lover, Adam (Hugh Dancy), perhaps-corrupt cop Roy (David Thewlis), and Michael’s colleagues, notably Dr. Milena Gardosh (Charlotte Rampling). (It’s hard not to think of Brick, with Catherine as the provocative new girl in school, alienating Michael’s longtime friends and completely messing up the established cafeteria-seating patterns.) While someone leaves a trail of garroted, postcoital corpses around town, Catherine choreographs Michael’s breakdown, prompting Dr. Gardosh to say things like “How Lacanian.”

Actually, how Eszterhasian. Basic Instinct 2 was written by Leora Barish and Henry Bean and directed by Michael Caton-Jones, who did a rather better job with Scandal, which was based on the case of a real (and British) femme fatale, Christine Keeler. But the principal thing that distinguishes this movie from its predecessor, directed by Dutch sex-crime enthusiast Paul Verhoeven, is the setting. The new Instinct is another Cool Britannia flick, depicting London as the gleaming high-rise city it decidedly isn’t. Most prominent of the architectural props is 30 St Mary Axe, a bulbous tower known widely as the Gherkin (or, more tellingly, the Erotic Gherkin).

The most prominent of London’s recently built corporate cathedrals, this glass tower is an unlikely place for a shrink’s office, but of course David has a large room with a view there. As upscale as the Gherkin is, here it’s meant to seem as kinky as the Soho dive where Catherine screws an S&M enthusiast as an obsessed David peeps through a skylight.

The film’s most playful aspect is Catherine’s insistence on smoking where it’s not allowed, lighting up with a Gherkin lighter. This is considerably more amusing than the inevitable sequel to the first movie’s bare-crotch moment, in which Catherine opens her robe to reveal a body that suggests something from an X-rated wax museum. Seduction doesn’t look all that seductive in Basic Instinct 2, a movie in which even the temptations of the flesh appear more architectonic than erotic.

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