In my never-ending quest to watch Jonathan Rosenbaum's 1000 Favorite Films, I embarked upon two largely misunderstood psychosexual thrillers from 1992, directed with chilly precision by European filmmakers in America. Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct successfully wallowed in controversy upon its release for Sharon Stone's infamous "twat seen 'round the world"; today though, it only seems like only one winking provocation amongst many. Like a gender transposition of the director's hilariously symbolic The Fourth Man, the movie punishes its protagonist for straying into sexual abandon and for missing all of the obvious warning signs. In the place of blasphemed Catholic imagery, rambunctious screenwriter Joe Eszterhas dumps Hitchcock blondes, DePalmaesque camera acrobatics, and over-the-top noir tropes into a sleazy, post-genre stew, with Stone's icy star-making turn as the main ingredient and George Dzundza's over-boiled sarcasm ("She got that magna cum laude pussy on her that done fried up your brain!", "He got off before he got offed") as the prime seasoning. Stone's blank, sculpted visage has since launched a thousand Skinemax knock-offs, invariably mingling sex, death, and even abnormal psychology without an ounce of Verhoeven's visual wit, a perfect counterpoint to Eszterhas's fun but overheated script.
The differences between the aggressive Basic Instinct and Polanski's more ruminative Bitter Moon are clear from the opening images: Verhoeven shatters perception with a kaleidoscopic mirrored reflection of a copulating couple, while Polanski opens on a gently rolling sea only to pull back and reveal that we were looking from a stateroom on a cruise liner through a circular porthole, obscuring vision but anticipating the story-within-a-story to come. Like an even scurvier Ancient Mariner, wild-eyed, wheelchaired former novelist Oscar (Peter Coyote) is compelled to weave his novelistic tale of kinky desire for and disillusion with the increasingly disturbed and desensitized Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner, who goes from perkily innocent plaything to blank, Sharon Stone-esque erotic avenger as the film continues). The audience for Oscar's unreliable narration is Nigel, maybe the most stereotypically repressed, British role Hugh Grant will ever play, along with those sexually-inhibited souls watching at home. He's on a trip to spice up his seven-year marriage to Kristin Scott-Thomas's outwardly placid Fiona, so his secret-sharer relationship with Oscar bodes ill for the future. The price of employing exoticism and experimentation to jumpstart a floundering relationship has rarely been more acutely presented on film.
Although the immediate parallels would seem to be between ice queens Mimi and Sharon Stone's Catherine Trammell (along with the uncanny confluence of nursemaid/dominatrix motifs if Jeanne Tripplehorn's Trammell-double counselor is thrown into the equation), the real twins are Catherine and Oscar, pleasure-seeking Americans through and through. Sexual instigators used to getting what they want, the pair are also writers, attempting to conflate their lives and their arts into a workable whole. Catherine, with what one imagines as functional, workmanlike prose, writes lurid crime novels that ambiguously come true, probably by her own hand. Oscar, on the other hand, is the classic failed novelist, purplish and high-falutin' in a way that's no longer popular. If Oscar's life story is anything to trust (and there are indications that it may not be), his Parisian downward spiral into sexual malaise and cruelty parallels his thwarted ambitions (although he seems at his most devilishly happy recounting his yarn to Nigel). So perhaps the most interesting contrast to be made between Catherine and Oscar involves their relative commercial successes: Catherine gets away with murder and indulging her psychosexual obsessions in real life because she caters to her audience's bloodlust safely through prose; art imitates life and vice versa until no one can tell the difference. But Oscar's failings as a novelist, his inability to reconcile his idea of a higher order of art with the erotic restlessness he feels with Mimi, haunt and degrade him as time goes on. Life refuses to conform to art, and both suffer. Similarly, Basic Instinct became a huge hit because of its wry sensationalism, and Bitter Moon, the altogether more challenging and less titillating movie, did not.
The two films dance with these notions of art versus life, storyteller versus audience, in a more playful mode than I may be conveying or the original audiences may have cared to admit. Polanski's mordant wit is in evidence throughout Bitter Moon, especially through Peter Coyote's flowery narration and in the early scenes of Oscar's and Mimi's budding kinkiness. Both he and Verhoeven frequently match formal mastery with a drolly ironic eye towards chosen genres and characters, and these mid-period works are exemplars of keen, feisty art-entertainment ripe for reevaluation.