In a 1991 Nightline segment, Chris Wallace sits down with Kim Basinger in the wake of Disney’s The Marrying Man, an allegedly tortured production marred by reports of her and costar-turned-lover Alec Baldwin’s “diva” behavior on set. For her turn as nightclub singer Vicki Anderson, Basinger will be nominated for a Worst Actress Razzie, a distinction she’d already earned in 1986 playing horny SoHo gallerist Elizabeth McGraw in Adrian Lyne’s 9½ Weeks. Asked if she had any inhibitions about first posing nude for Playboy, then starring in a film dubbed “sadomasochism for the MTV generation,” Basinger, shot onsite at her production company in front of a lavender grand piano, dismisses inhibition altogether: “I’ve always lived on the edge.”
“The edge” is that terrain most doggedly investigated by the erotic thriller: that of decency and climax; of personal, professional, and ethical limits, beyond which a temptation or criminal dalliance might shuttle us—please!—from the realm of normalcy. That “normalcy” is as critical to the genre as its visions of excess is proven by how many of the most well-known (or at least most lucrative) erotic thrillers look at how respectable, upper-middle-class people envision and transgress boundaries of justice and propriety.
Or: the edge is a site of fantasy best visualizable from the center.
As in other contemporary interviews—including one promoting 1992’s Final Analysis, for which she’d receive her third Razzie nod out of a perplexing career seven—Basinger is quick to impart the importance of what she calls “people movies:” broadly appealing commercial vehicles that aren’t too heady or cool to deliver on the promise of pleasure. I never used to think of erotic thrillers as people movies; holed up in the basement with a low-volume cable edit of Poison Ivy, I was as shamefully transfixed by Tom Skerritt’s mustache as I was by the ominous gale of “Symphonie Fantastique” in Sleeping With the Enemy or by Emmanuelle Seigner drooling milk in Polanski’s Bitter Moon, each like a perverse dog whistle, shouting in whispers that Andrew Keegan and his Tiger Beat ilk did not, would never, do anything for me.
But seen from the mezzanine of adulthood, the source of my satisfaction is less the genre’s novelty than its soothing proneness to cliché. With erotic thrillers, the likelihood of astonishment runs parallel to the assurance of knowing precisely what you’ll get: intrigue, infidelity, conspiracy, obsession, doubles, misdirection, insatiable corruption and corrupting insatiability—to say nothing of the genre’s commitment to style, stealing from softcore and noir to fashion worlds of fog and shadow, glassy surfaces whose polish only highlights the opacities of plot.
In the case of Final Analysis, giving people what they want meant reuniting Basinger with No Mercy costar Richard Gere (there, he’s a roughshod undercover and she’s the chattel of a Cajun crime lord; when he first spots her winding through a busy restaurant, the ensuing remark to his soon-to-be-killed partner sums up Basinger’s kittenish persona: “She’s got ‘Born to screw’ tattooed on her forehead”). It meant elevating the familiar, so Gere plays an unscrupulous psychiatrist instead of an unscrupulous cop, and Basinger graduates from gangster’s mistress to gangster’s wife. And it meant lavishing a single feature with an absolute blitz of notorious erotic thriller clichés—including, delightfully, the explicit diegetic acknowledgment of cliché—utterly unencumbered by norms of plausibility. The result, erratic and opulent, feels like something given lots of permission. We find not only Basinger but the genre itself discovering, or perhaps groping for, the place where an edge might be.
With a story co-created by Cape Fear script doctor Wesley Strick and actual forensic psychiatrist Dr. Robert H. Berger, Final Analysis is not only a psychological thriller about psychological diagnosis, but also a film concerning doubles that’s itself a kind of copy, patterned after the exemplar of psychoanalytic cinema, Vertigo. Director Phil Joanou describes coming onto the project with Hitchcock’s filmography already lining his mind: “That’s the fabric that this movie is cut from.” Amenably, an ongoing union strike prompted production to move from New York to San Francisco and nearby Pigeon Point, where a pivotal lighthouse stands in for Mission San Juan Bautista. In the film’s opening credits, the tower’s revolving light sends an iris sliding across the screen, exposing imagery like the Golden Gate Bridge, flowers, a glass of red wine—a selective symbology that itemizes the film’s components like charms on a bracelet. How the skyline, a gavel, an exploding vase, and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams will ultimately “cohere” is less vital than the associative gesture that joins them.
We fade in on a close-up of Uma Thurman that reeks of another all-time erotic thriller, Persona, not just in how the camera holds Thurman’s Swedish-ish features in blank direct address, but in the uncanny way her face, like Liv Ullmann’s, fills yet empties the frame. She plays patient Diana Baylor, recounting a recurring dream of arranging flowers in a centerpiece. Listening is “Freudian psychiatrist” and forensic expert Isaac Barr (Gere). Diana alternately describes her recent compulsions and urges Isaac to get in touch with her older sister, Heather (Basinger), whose childhood memories may fill some gaps in the family history.
This is a ploy for Heather to meet, seduce, and exploit Isaac for the medical authority that’ll enable her to kill her terrifying gangster husband, Jimmy Evans (Eric Roberts), and evade responsibility due to psychiatric disease: “pathological intoxication,” whereby any sip of alcohol allegedly provokes Heather to black out and go berserk. Eventually Isaac realizes both sisters have been fabricating their symptoms to manipulate him into play, but Heather does everything she can to pin Jimmy’s murder on Isaac, including swapping places with Diana during hospital visiting hours to orchestrate her own escape. Just as Isaac initially resembles Vertigo’s haunted Scottie Ferguson, consumed by desire for a vulnerable, regrettably married blonde, Final Analysis ultimately remixes Hitchcock’s second and third acts, ending with one deceitful woman plunging to her death and another made over to assume her place.
It’s not an easy plot to summarize, nor can summary alone convey the film’s hallmarks: the weird way its pacing distends and contracts or its relentless, mesmeric repetitions—from Diana’s rote monologue (“I had the dream again…”), to the visual slippage that allows one woman to substitute for another (see: Basic Instinct, Single White Female, Mulholland Drive, Black Swan), to the score that quotes and emulates composer Bernard Herrmann, whose iconic work for Vertigo Martin Scorsese has described as a direct expression of obsession: “it’s about circling back to the same moment, again and again…And the music is also built around spirals and circles, fulfillment and despair.”
If not exactly “despair,” we do meet Isaac in a state of resignation, explaining at post-trial drinks with his D.A. buddy Mike (Paul Guilfoyle) that the insights of psychology have ruined him for first dates: “I just want to be surprised.” In the very next shot, Basinger’s Heather drops in on Isaac alone at the office after hours, zipped to the throat in a red skirt suit. You can see why Basinger has long drawn comparisons to Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot: she has this halting, unteachable wobble, demure and self-effacing, even while her glamour is so apparent it’s practically confrontational. I’m thinking of a 1991 Cosmo cover where she pouts contemptibly in a bubblegum minidress. The hair is big, the dress pink, the hem short, the hip cocked; every variable enhanced to its furthest extent, as if to answer the cover line’s conjecture: What It’s Like to Be in a Room With Her.
For Isaac, the intensity is irresistible. When Heather stops by his house for a follow-up (notably, in a double-breasted interpretation of Vertigo’s gray suit), he demonstrates zero professional qualms about asking her out and only wavers before taking her inside for thunderstorm sex. I wondered if Gere and Basinger had ever liaised off-screen, and according to her ex-husband Ron Britton’s salacious marriage memoir, they had, back in Wilmington when No Mercy was underway. Britton describes a series of late nights, a parking lot makeout, and two letters from Gere that he discovered and then videotaped himself reading out loud. “In the making of just one movie,” he writes, “Kim had managed to break two hearts.”
Funny that both films situate Basinger in captivity to a dangerous man and designate Gere as her savior. While the ponytailed murderer in No Mercy is lethal but silly (Jeroen Krabbé doing Steven Seagal), Eric Roberts’ “Greek Orthodox gangster” Jimmy Evans conveys a menace as credible as it is cryptic. He’s of a piece with the condo where Heather returns after her rendezvous with Isaac. All the lustrous severity of gym equipment and mirrored curio cabinetry culminate in a taut, bronze, glowering husband, a testament to how even a beautiful disciplined body implies, even emanates, discomfort. This scene is our insight to the source of Heather’s acrimony and it’s scariest for what it withholds. He’s tense; a workout didn’t help, and he doesn’t want a drink. He wants the other thing. He doesn’t have to specify. “Do it,” he says, sucking malevolently on a smoke. She starts to peel off her Vertigo-wear, working inward from the trench. “Slower.” It’s the lowered spaghetti straps we peeped in the opening credits, now with her stricken face bobbing adrift above what her hands continue to do.
In her next session, Diana asks, “Does everything always have to be about sex?” She’s finally disclosed the third flower in her dream’s arrangement, discharging an eye-widening series of homophones in the process: violence—violates—violets! Violets. The oral intrusion of violation, like the inferno she claims consumes her dream once the centerpiece is finished, is a callback to something Heather’s said about their childhood: that after their father raped Diana, he was killed in a suspicious fire for which she was thought responsible. Cleared by Heather’s testimony, Diana’s since blocked out the whole ordeal.
Final Analysis is obsessed with these lacunae, and not just as fodder for late-game plot twists (in accordance with the film’s proclivity for substitution, we’ll learn it was Heather, not Diana, who suffered and avenged their father’s abuse). It’s like when Heather describes an episode of pathological intoxication, the veracity of which the film shelves under “?”—I don’t know what I become because I never can remember. Strictly speaking, this is her excuse, an opportunity to act without recourse. But it also dredges up what Freud observes about the transformation of his field, from psychoanalysis as an art of interpretation dependent on recuperative feats of memory to a study of repetition—of the happenings patients reanimate, again and again, where recollection falters.
Narratively and atmospherically, the film turns on a sequence in which Isaac is compelled to do the reading. This is after Heather fatally clobbers Jimmy with a dumbbell; after prosecutor “Mr. Brakhage” (Harris Yulin) likens the act to George Eastman’s deadly oar in A Place in the Sun; after Heather is acquitted and Isaac, ever ethical, vows to appoint himself to her psychological evaluation committee. Then we find ourselves listening in the dark. In a room whose scale and density more closely resemble the opera than an academic symposium, a figure credited as “Woman Speaker” (Katherine Cortez) is lecturing on Freud.
Behind her, a projected slide of an enlarged red rose. Citing an anecdote from Chapter 6 of Interpretation of Dreams, she describes a patient’s vision of arranging flowers: the unseasonal mix of lilies, carnations, and violets amount to “poor taste,” and the combination perks Isaac’s ears. Hasn’t he heard that somewhere before? (And what’s he doing there? Is this further education? A timely instance of professional service?) The lilies may denote purity; carnations, carnal desire; and the violets remark on a woman’s unconscious need to be violated violently—but, she paraphrases, “sometimes a violet is just a violet.” In the accompanying text to her terrifically evocative video, Primal Analysis, Cristina Álvarez López homes in on this scene’s distinct prescience: “The feminist lecturer also gives us a key to this fully incoherent film: ‘Sometimes a violet is just a violet’—or, sometimes, rather than get obsessed with the hidden meaning of symbols, we should be amused by their potential to become a lure for a whole new, parallel story.”
I move toward this divergence between obsession and amusement because I believe the erotic thriller models the ambivalence necessary to joyfully navigate its extremes. Here we’re invited to practice decryption with an eye toward abundance rather than resolution—not, “but what does it really mean?,” but “what does it mean, and mean, and mean…” How is this Vertigo, but only by memory; how do villainy and virtue circuit through figures such that there isn’t ever only one “wrong sister?” That the erotic thriller’s characters are perpetually discovering novel forms of pleasure with and for their bodies is fitting given the genre’s ongoing invitation to its audience, to try a few things. To see what else a violet can do.
Isaac’s reaction to the lecture (the sacred panic-to-research-montage pipeline) confirms something he’s already told us twice: he doesn’t listen. He didn’t just fail to catch Diana’s reference; he was seeing her solely, as he recounted to his colleague Alan, as “this attractive, seductive young woman.” And as he once joked to Heather, all it takes to affect attentiveness is repeating someone’s last two words in the form of a prompting question. …Your mother?
Beyond making Isaac the butt of his own joke—something Freud would relish—Final Analysis subsumes his indifference under a more extensive misperception. “You know as well as I do,” Alan starts, “romantic love is a projection. You’re not seeing this woman. It’s a vision of her.” Of course, he’s eerily right; like Kim Novak’s Judy’s Madeleine, Heather stages herself for sympathy, for consumption. If she is and isn’t herself, it’s because no one is. Even when we’re not consciously acting, or wearing disguises, or parroting another interiority wholesale, what we are and see is circumscribed—and the bottom line is, depending on the illusion, it hardly matters. Not a moment after assuring Isaac that a woman like Heather doesn’t exist, Alan spots her in the doorway and literally stands corrected.
So it follows that the film’s spectacular ending ferries us back to the lighthouse, where Isaac solves the mystery of Heather’s originary trauma but fails to save her life. We watch her flail, scream, go over the edge. We see the roiling water, briefly sharing Isaac’s perspective from the tower’s compromised lookout before the camera reverses and retreats. Though the plot hurries forward—dissolving onto the courthouse steps where newly pardoned accomplice Diana catches Isaac’s eye; cutting to a gratuitous candlelit epilogue designed for maximum moral uncertainty—this is where I’m left, and where I suspect Isaac is too. Back, yet again, to the lighthouse: that symbol of intermittent, imperfect illumination. A beacon of danger that nonetheless draws our eye.