Previously on Filmreel:
The unacknowledged need to set boundaries and parameters for the artistic expression of others was placed under my scalpel as the year opened (NT#46). Guest writers confessed their Guilty Pleasures, while I left my true one out (NT#48) and moved on to elaborate on the three most important films of the last three decades (NT#49 and 50).
My stance on Realism was addressed (NT#51) and praised by a feminist in attendance of the Doc/Fest, which I subsequently reviewed from the perspective of a documentarist who loves fiction (NT#52). And then along came Cosmopolis – more of a game-changer than anyone would care to admit (NT#53).
Now, it all comes full-circle in…
ENTITLEMENT II – BINOCHE & STONE.
Twenty years ago, I went to an old-fashioned cinema in Lisbon to watch the newly-released Basic Instinct – with my mother. I was under age but could’ve easily gone on my own; not just because the film was rated 16, but because ratings in Portugal were merely decorative.
Both my mother and I felt blown away by the cinematic flare displayed by Paul Verhoeven’s masterful direction. I was particularly taken by the sense of familiarity the entire film had, whilst still remaining utterly original in tone and approach.
My fondness for the film has not diminished over the years. Quite the opposite; I almost feel guilty for liking it so much. My perception of the stigma that became attached to the film ever since its release has changed though. I have moved from bafflement to bemusement and have now reached the ability to look back at the whole phenomenon with the cool detachment of someone who has raised controversy in the same field.
The key thing about Basic Instinct is that it takes a series of Hollywood archetypes – mostly from suspense thrillers and detective noir stories – and turns them inside out. Always pushing them, at every step, to the limits of expectation and of what the norm has conditioned the public to accept. It’s what Hitchcock didn’t show us in Vertigo or Psycho. It’s the sleazy underbelly of Hollywood rubbed all over its face. And it’s pure cinema.
This is the merit upon which the film should be judged. The uproar on the part of gay, lesbian and feminist groups who couldn’t conceive that the murderess in the film was a (self-) objectified bisexual is peripheral to its innate cinematic strength.
Another key element, strong enough to challenge any view of that kind, is Sharon Stone’s performance, which takes me to feminist intellectual Camille Paglia’s views on this leading lady (as shared with us once at a screening of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona). In Paglia’s opinion, Sharon Stone claimed back a feminine authority on screen which actresses like Lauren Bacall and Katherine Hepburn once had, but that was diluted by softer stars like Meryl Streep or Gwyneth Paltrow. She moved on to detach herself from traditional feminism, stating that Picasso could’ve ‘lined up a row of women and have them all shot. He would still be a good artist.’ The silence in the front row, where a line of hardcore feminists sat, including the one who was to praise my Filmreel writing years later, spoke volumes…
If Verhoeven’s much contested entitlement to make Basic Instinct comes from the fact that he is Dutch (and therefore having the propensity to push boundaries in an endearingly playful way), Sharon Stone’s comes from being an intelligent human being who happens to be a woman (and an actress). She understands inherently that a good role is worth playing, regardless of ‘unfavourable’ gender representation or portrayal of sexual orientation.
Disastrous as Basic Instinct II might’ve turned out, Stone’s earlier judgement of wanting David Cronenberg to direct it shows that there’s more to her very high IQ than meets the eye. As the story goes, Martin Scorcese wanted to watch Cronenberg’s Crash, so Stone arranged a screening of it at her house and invited Cronenberg along. This led to his involvement in the sequel and his writing of what many say was a remarkable first draft of the script. If commercial pressure was the real reason for his departure, no one will ever know. Still, there are hints in Michael Caton-Jones’ mediocre sequel of where Cronenberg could’ve taken it.
When David Cronenberg explores the psychological fabric of a character or scene, it’s always in absolute synch with the filmmaking. Crash may be the finest example of that, but his more recent adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis never falls short of such moments. A highlight of the film (and which best illustrates this) is the scene that introduces the character played by Juliette Binoche.
Needless to say, this is a scene which most actresses of similar status would’ve turned down. After all, the character is introduced abruptly, having sex in the back of a limo, has a chat about Rothko and never appears again. But Binoche and Cronenberg elevate the scene to higher levels of humanity and depth of character. His inclusion of a close-up of her stilettos being propped post-coitally over a cool interior surface of the limo sums up the entire scene. Her understanding of her character is singular; here’s an emancipated professional woman made vulnerable by a sexual dependence on a younger, more successful man. These dynamics are beautifully played out and come across crystal clear thanks to Binoche.
This quintessentially French actress is always up for a challenge. She has left her comfort zone various times, even venturing into dance with criticallyacclaimed British choreographer Akram Khan in In-I. She also navigates confidently between mainstream (The English Patient, Chocolat) and art-house projects (CachÃ©, Trois Couleurs: Bleu) and can be seen back on stage this month, at the Barbican, in Strindberg’s Mademoiselle Julie.
About the mythical Swedish author of the play, she acknowledges his chauvinism as much as his genius. With regards to feminism, she finds it to be a reductive, stereotyped way of thinking – that being actively creative is far more important than talking about it – but still adds that women are naturally ‘born creative, not only because they have babies, but because there’s a blossoming to find inside us’.
As a complement to these refreshing views, I invite you to read Juliette Binoche’s interview with Vanity Fair, which was prompted by her role in the controversial film Elles and addresses femininity from a variety of unresolved angles.
The theme of Entitlement will conclude in three months’ time with the way hardcore pornography has been gradually trickling into mainstream culture, the pivotal role women have been overtly playing in this and the dawn of the complete disempowerment of the heterosexual male.