“These ‘psycho femmes’ elicit a different response from male characters than their usual urge to dominate over sexy, blonde, female characters. Men in these films are intrigued, often frightened, and always controlled by these dangerously powerful women” (Greenhill and Tye 140).

Basic Instinct (1992)

Director, producer, and stars at the Cannes Film Festival 1992

Director, producer, and stars at the Cannes Film Festival 1992

Basic Instinct is an American erotic thriller, directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Joe Eszterhas.

Cast

Michael Douglas……Detective Nick Curran

Detective Nick Curran

Detective Nick Curran

Sharon Stone……….Catherine Tramell

Catherine Tramell

Catherine Tramell

George Dzundza…………..Gus

Gus

Gus

Jeanne Tripplehorn……….Dr. Beth Garner

Dr. Beth Garner

Dr. Beth Garner

Leilani Sarelle………….Roxy

Roxy

Roxy

Plot Summary

The film’s protagonist is police detective Nick Curran, who is investigating the murder of a wealthy former rock star. Johnny Boz, the rock star, was killed during a sexual encounter, when the woman he was with stabbed him multiple times with an ice pick while climaxing (a really graphic scene is shown of this). Catherine Tramell becomes involved in the crime as the star suspect. The beautiful and seductive Tramell is a wealthy crime writer, who often writes about crimes before they are committed. Catherine not only wrote about the rock star’s murder in the same way that it occurred in reality, she was actually having a sexual relationship with the rock star during her writing!

Nick leads the case and has to have a lot of personal contact with Tramell, which begins their very intense sexual relationship. Tramell begins to write a novel about a detective who gets killed—needless to say, Curran is scared for his life! However, Curran cannot seem to let go of Tramell and is drawn in by her wit, charm, beauty, and fearsome seduction.

The plot is further complicated by a variety of characters. Tramell has had a tumultuous affair with a woman named Roxy, who becomes very jealous of Nick for his relationship with Tramell. On the same note, Curran is having a sexual relationship with his therapist, Beth, who later turns out to have had a homosexual affair with Tramell in college. Then for comic relief, Curran’s best friend Gus has lively banter with Curran about leaving Tramell alone.

Tramell makes the movie even more of an excitement. One cannot forget the famous interrogation scene where she flashes the police her naked crotch. The whole way through, Tramell’s fearsome demeanor has the audience believing that she committed the murder. On the same note, Tramell has always been surrounded by death—her parents were killed, her lover/college professor was stabbed with an ice pick, and her boxer boyfriend was killed in the ring. However, by the end of the movie, Curran shoots his therapist believing that she is the true murderer. The audience is somewhat content with this outcome—until the end of the film. Here Tramell looks under the bed and lays with Curran talking about their future together. The audience believes the film to be over, until the film does a double take and we see that it is actually an ice pick under the bed!

Controversy of the film

The film struck a nerve with various groups and has been the subject of much controversy. The film, which was originally labeled NC-17 for its graphic violence and sexuality before the director “tweaked the angles,” has been criticized for its depictions of sexuality and violent murder scenes.

However, the film got the most backlash from the gay and lesbian community who were angered by the film’s depiction of women who engage in same-sex relationships as accused or actual psycho-murderers. However, other prominent members of the gay, lesbian, or bisexual community have stood by the film.

Advertising for the film

Trailer for Basic Instinct

Film Poster and Cover for Basic Instinct

Film Poster and Cover for Basic Instinct

The movie’s advertising clearly focuses on the cultural intrigue surrounding femmes fatales. This is clearly shown through an examination of the poster. Stone’s menacing yet alluring eyes are the central focus of the poster, while we can only see half of Douglas’ face. Not only that, the poster highlights Stone’s clawlike fingers that are clenching Douglas’ back. Clearly, Stone is supposed to be both the temptation for the audience and the source of fear. The trailer works to the same effect. The most interesting parts of the film are when Stone is shown, in all of her seductive glory. When Douglas’ is the central focus, it is only to move the trailer along to the more desirable character–Sharon Stone.

The Interrogation Scene

Watch the Scene Here

Much insight into the properties of the femme fatale and the alluring nature of this figure embodied in Sharon Stone can be gathered from this section of the film.

The much discussed interrogation scene in Basic Instinct (1992), the scene that made Sharon Stone a star, is a prime example. When Catherine Tramell is brought in for questioning by the police, she is supposed to be the one in the hot seat as a team of male detectives grill her. Instead Catherine remains calm and collected while the men are reduced to sweaty, blabbering fools after she briefly uncrosses her legs and they get a glimpse of her pantieless crotch” (reel knockouts: looks that kill 62).

The main point that comes across in the scene is that Catherine is a bombshell–a dangerous one. She has the policemen all but drooling in her presence, through her seductive appearance and conversation. She has both the policemen and the audience imagining her sexual encounters and is bold enough to say that she likes “hands and fingers;” the audience can only begin to imagine why! At the same time, this scene shows both Catherine’s intelligence and her flair for manipulation. She is always a mile ahead of all the policemen, and has them thoroughly confused during the questioning. Even more shocking than her seductiveness, manipulative nature, and dangerousness is Catherine’s total sexual liberation. Not only does she talk about hands and fingers, she also singles Nick out and talks about having sex on drugs, and flashes her vagina to the policemen! The scene where Stone flashes her private parts to the camera is forever embroiled in the mind’s of the audience. Nothing screams sexual liberation and danger at the same time like this scene in the movie!

Critical Analysis

Sharon Stone’s Tramell as Femme Fatale:

The Ice Pick

The Ice Pick

“In Stone’s work we can investigate the intersections of thirty years of recent feminism with the archetypal Hollywood figure of female violence, the ‘spider woman,’ or femme fatale…the femme fatale incorporates violent tendencies posing as vulnerability, voracious heterosexuality, rampant mendacity, and inscrutability to males” (reel knockouts stone aesthetic 126)

The women in Basic Instinct only kill to subvert patriarchy and the family:

Castration Fear

Castration Fear

The women in Basic Instinct kill in order to fight against restraints put on them by their families and society. The movie features three women, who in one form or another, have this as their killing aim: “In Basic Instinct, women kill in acts of rage directed specifically against men and the family. Tramell is not the only murderess in this film; she has befriended two women, Roxy and Hazel, who have killed their entire families. When Curran discovers Roxy’s bloody history, he asks what her motive had been and his partner, Gus, explains, “This young farmgirl got tired of all that attention going to her little brothers, so she fixed them. Just like old Hazel Dobkins fixed her whole family, except young Roxy here didn’t use a wedding present: she used Daddy’s razor.” This explanation is interesting on several counts. First, Gus interprets Roxy’s killing as motivated by jealousy of her male siblings, invoking a patriarchal family structure that favors boys over girls. Second, the language that he uses-”so she fixed them”-positions the crime as, symbolically, a castration enacted by appropriating “Daddy’s razor”; again, he constitutes her anger as directed against men, against the phallus. Finally, he reveals that Hazel, Tramell’s other murderous friend, killed with a knife she had received as a wedding present, thus connecting her rage to her marriage. Even Tramell has killed her parents, although Curran cannot prove it. It is no wonder, then, that when Curran proposes that they “fuck like minks, raise rug rats, and live happily ever after,” Tramell’s only response is “I don’t like rug rats.” In the three cases, female violence is enacted within and directed against the family-specifically, the men of the family” (Sherwin)

Catherine kills men because she is sexually bored of them (reminiscent of Josephine in City Crimes by George Thompson):

Dead Rock Star

Dead Rock Star

Tramell moves from one man to the next, using them when she feels like it and killing them when they are expendable. When talking about Boz, she “liked fucking him”–past tense. She didn’t anymore, so Boz gets the ice pick to the face. Catherine isn’t one to stay in a sexually dull relationship (like some of the women in Thompson’s texts): “Catherine might still be the psychokiller. According to Antonio Weinrichter, what saves Curran is his satisfactory sexual performance–”the fuck of the century”–as they both rate their first sexual encounter. As long as he can keep it up, he has nothing to fear, but, just in case, Catherine always has her own very special dildo at hand (25). Weinrichter settles, therefore, for Catherine’s criminal personality, but he also suggests that it is Nick’s fear and anxiety about women that produces that criminality” (Deleyto)

The violence of the movie actually represents a male fear of castration by women:

Catherine and Nick

Catherine and Nick

Many studies on Basic Instinct have focused on the ice pick as a castrating force for the men Tramell kills. However, this application can be treated more universlly for femme fatales in that they all in some way or another illicit a fear of castration in men: “This irrational fear attributes to women a universal desire for revenge, a desire which, in this film and other texts, is never explained or justified. ‘The message of the film appears to be that for the unsuspecting man, caught in the throes of orgasm, death may come at any time’. Yet the attitude to the castrating woman is ambiguous: she arouses fear of castration but also a simultaneous masochistic desire for death, pleasure, and oblivion” (Deleyto)

Lessons Learned from Catherine Tramell

Catherine in Control of Her Sexuality

Catherine in Control of Her Sexuality

Tramell is an interesting and captivating figure because of her role as a strong woman with power over men and sexuality:

“Her most impressive attribute is not her propensity for murder, which is common among femmes fatales, but her cold assertion of a diverse palate. Asked if she is sorry a lover has been killed, she replies, ‘Yeah, I liked fucking him.’ She offers neither explanation nor apology for her bisexuality and never indicates that she values one sex or gender over another. She also deviates from noir models in refusing to assert her power through deceptive conflations of desire and love. Only a lazy egotism convinces Nick that their affair is more than a sadomasochistic partnership. But as with many noir heroes, his cynicism is a flimsy mix of scar tissue and pretense. Though he feigns Catherine’s lack of sentiment by calling her ‘the fuck of the century,’ he alternates such glibness with softer profe-sions of love and tacit yearnings for reciprocity” (Andrews 66).

she “reveals the threat that an independent, working, bisexual woman represents to man, as well as the fragility of the control that man can exert over her” (Sherwin)

Fatal Attraction (1987)

Fatal Attraction is a thriller film, directed by Adrian Lyne and written by James Dearden.

Cast

Michael Douglas……..Dan Gallagher

Dan Gallagher

Dan Gallagher

Glenn Close……..Alex Forrest

Alex Forrest

Alex Forrest

Anne Archer……….Beth Gallagher

Beth Gallagher

Beth Gallagher

Ellen Hamilton Latzen……….Ellen Gallagher

Ellen Gallagher

Ellen Gallagher

Plot Summary

Movie Poster and Cover for Fatal Attraction

Movie Poster and Cover for Fatal Attraction

Dan is a married lawyer and fahter living in Manhattan when he meets Alex Forrest, a successful editor for a publishing company. When Dan’s wife and daughter go out of town to look at suburban homes, Dan has an affair with Alex, which promises to be a one time occurrence for both of the parties. However, Alex hasn’t had quite enough of Dan, and wishes for their affair to continue. Dan refuses to take part in any of Alex’s advances, so Alex threatens to kill herself. Dan still rejects Alex. Then Alex informs Dan that she is pregnant with his child. Dan is beside himself and says he will pay for Alex’s abortion. This infuriates Alex and she refuses. This is where the plot becomes very violent. Although the Gallagher family move to Bedford, Alex will stop at nothing. She stalks Dan at home, pours acid on his car, kill’s Dan’s daughter’s pet rabbit by boiling it in a pot, and kidnaps Ellen (the daughter) from school and takes her to an amusement park. After Dan realizes what has been happening, he beats Alex in his angered state. However, this does not hold for long because Alex turns the fight around and almost kills Dan through the use of a knife in the kitchen. Dan gives up his fight and Alex sees this as a sign of defeat so she moves towards her obstacle—Dan’s wife. Alex attacks Beth with the knife, but is saved when Dan comes and almost drowns Alex. Dan believes Alex to be dead, but Alex resuscitates, only to be shot in the chest by Beth. The film ends with a focused shot of a family portrait.

Advertisement for the film

Trailer for Fatal Attraction

Much like the trailer for Basic Instinct, the trailer for Fatal Attraction highlights the menacing yet seductive aspects of Glenn Close’s character. The beginning of the film shows how Dan first meets Alex through “a look.” The trailer clearly poses Dan as the victim of the femme fatale who can subjugate a man to her desires through solely a glance. However, the trailer does show Alex as more of a menacing figure and less of a seductive figure than the character of Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct. Both women, nonetheless, do possess a certain “sexiness” and “maliciousness” at the same time.

Critical Analysis:

Chemistry in Fatal Attraction

Chemistry in Fatal Attraction

Alex must die because of Western culture’s fear of passion:

This theory seems to be straight out of the Victorian ideology created by the middle and upper class, advocating for a woman’s passionlessness. Beth, the “good wife” is a beautiful and seductive woman. However, for Dan, she initiates a very nonpassionate response. Why is that? It seems that the movie suggests that the home has to be devoid of passion in order for it to function stably. In a scene where Dan and Alex are going to have sex, it seems very mundane and familial and is interrupted by Ellen. Therefore, Dan has to look elsewhere for his passionate sexual encounters. When the family needs to be strengthened, Alex needs to vanish.

“it seems, rather, to be a fear about passion itself, about its powers and possibilities in human life” (dread of difference 403).

Passion Gone Wrong

Passion Gone Wrong

“That Dan—and the audience—automatically fight this respect seems to me related to the history of passion in Western thought. Ever since Plato’s poignant arguments, moralists have encouraged killing the passions. Therefore, it is not surprising that audiences encourage killing Alex. She is identified with what has been labeled least human about us, what we should be most humiliated by. Beth is Dan’s pride, a ‘higher’ love; Alex is his shame” (dread of difference 406)

“Passion will destroy domestic security, just as surely as domesticity will smother it…one must choose” (dread of difference 410)

Alex’s superiority and intelligence makes her fearsome and worth killing:

Alex Forrest

Alex Forrest

Dan is not in Alex’s league, by any means. Alex appears to be of a higher intellectual status, more cultured, and definitely wittier than her male counterpart. “He never seems adequate to the multiple levels of her discourse or the quickness of her logic…Alex always seems ahead of him, deeper than he can fathom. However, the fundamental reason her rejects her is, as Alex states on the tape, that he is afraid of her, afraid of women—at least the undomesticated ones” (dread of difference 407)

You May or May Have Not Have Noticed….Michael Douglas?

Douglas acts as a sort of neutral man, one that does not illicit any sort of sexual desire from the female murderesses or the female audience members. The only people getting aroused are the ones who find the women in the film attractive–namely men–who feel mesmerized yet fearsome of the sexual prowess of the dangerous women in the films. “Douglas has a propensity to star in films that cast him as the object of desire for a beautiful but deadly woman, but Douglas lacks whatever quality it is that makes a star into a sex symbol. For men, the titular attraction is facilitated by the casting of Close in Fatal Attraction, Madonna in Body of Evidence, and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct; for women, the basic instinct when confronted by Douglas’s body of evidence is ambivalence. One can only conclude that heterosexual desire is not what the filmmakers are trying to evoke in women. One could even argue that the casting choice of Douglas itself places heterosexual women in a masochistic position, in that their desire to desire will be thwarted” (Sherwin)

3 Responses to “V. Murdering Seductresses: Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction Analyzed”

  1. Jasmine Taylor said

    I love the picture you chose! I would hope to see more pictures of the femme fatales you talk about.

  2. […] V. Murdering Seductresses: Basic Instinct and Fatal AttractionCatherine Tramell becomes involved in the crime as the star suspect. … scene in Basic Instinct (1992), the scene that made Sharon Stone a star, is a prime … blogs.commons.georgetown.edu/ds443-171project/v-how-far-weve-come-murdering-sedu […]

  3. […] needed a Paul Verhoeven, as just one frame of the punishing glee of a Showgirls or a Basic Instinct would at least have got the blood pumping and aroused the temperature beyond a few idle laughs and […]

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