Lapdances with wolves

As silly and hysterical as Basic Instinct. But the construction is even worse. SHOWGIRLS Paul Verhoeven (18)
Sexuality in Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls is as natural as water. Mind you, since the film's setting is Las Vegas, what this means in practice is that both commodities have to be piped in at great cost.

It's just about possible to see Showgirls as a satire on the modern dream of sex, represented in its extreme form as a pleasure resort built on sand. Even the basic reality of the seasons hardly impinges in Vegas: we have to deduce the time of year from unobtrusive cues like a group of children trick or treating, or Season's Greetings pinned up on a noticeboard.

Sunlight is harsh and constant, but the first thing dancers are told after a successful audition is to stay out of it. They've made a Persephone deal, and are only allowed above ground by arrangement. In any case, dusk is when the Vegas day begins, when sunlight stops muffling the neon. There's only one moment in the whole film when we see something like soft sunlight and that turns out to be a trick shot. Two women are dining al fresco in a fancy restaurant, but that's al fresco a la Vegas. They're taking the air in the controlled environment of a mall.

If all it took to make a feminist movie was to portray men as repellent, Showgirls would be hailed by women's groups worldwide as a breakthrough work. There's Al, who runs the Cheetah club, where the heroine gets her start. He takes a cut of the lap-dancers' pay, but he also expects a sexual commission. His reaction when Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) gets her big break to go legit - or what Vegas calls legit - is to say that it must be weird not having anybody come on you.

Then there's Tony, the director of the show, for whom auditions are an exercise in humiliating the powerless, spoilt only by the fact that he has to hire someone once in a while. Still, if he hires Nomi as a dancer, he can go on complaining that her nipples aren't hard enough: "I'm erect, why aren't you?"

Showgirls has two romantic leads, or rather it lightly dusts two more exploitative men with some of the allure of the romantic lead. There's James (Glenn Plummer), an unemployed choreographer who makes a dance for Nomi, and says all the right touchy-feely things: "You don't fool me. I see you hiding. From you." Trouble is he's a sex addict who won't wait for her to want him. And there's Zack (Kyle MacLachlan), the entertainment director, and the only person with the chivalry to tell her that her new dress was not made by "Verse Ace". Apart from that he's just another suave shark.

Future generations will marvel that Joe Eszterhas was ever the world's highest-paid screenwriter. Showgirls is as silly and hysterical as Basic Instinct, though nowhere near as vicious (not an ice-pick in sight). But the construction is even poorer. The script falls into three parts: first, the story of an innocent abroad - marred by Berkley's worst acting. When she stabs the straw into her drink carton at a fast-food restaurant, it's as if she's been told it is an ice-pick, and she splatters ketchup on to her fries with an intensity that will give people the giggles.

Then the story shifts into a tale of backstage rivalry between Nomi and the star of the show, Cristal (Gina Gershon). Think All About Eve remade by Paul Raymond. Finally, a theme of redemption by narcissism turns up from nowhere, and Nomi ends the film as a woman who has gambled and won. She has regained her self-respect and can finally say no to the world.

In deference to the sensibilities trampled on by Basic Instinct, Eszterhas balances female enmity with female friendship. Nomi's roommate is pretty much a saint of supportiveness; the choreographer of the show also takes a protective interest, warning Nomi off junk food and advising her to line up a job and a man for later. Even Henrietta Bazoom (Lin Tucci), the grotesque comedienne at the Cheetah Club - Fellini might have found her overblown - is viewed as motherly.

Despite the incoherence of the story, Paul Verhoeven could have made something of Showgirls if he'd treated it as a sour comedy (as Robocop was the sourest of comedies). A scene where an exotic dancer conceives a murderous hatred against a colleague for using the F-word in front of her children, who have come to visit mummy backstage, can surely only be played for comedy. Teddybear plus G-string equals big laugh, or equals nothing. Yet Verhoeven seems to have pathos in mind, as if only now did this person realise the degradation of the milieu she inhabits, now that soft toys are clutched in alarm and children's eyes fill with tears.

Verhoeven pulls out the stops for his production numbers, which is fair enough since Showgirls has some claim to be a musical. The problem is sex is only ever a spectacle in the film, as if the punters were buying desire when they're only buying sex. Just as James the choreographer comes up with an avant garde piece based on lap dancing that is really only pelvic thrusting plus pretension, so Verhoeven's point of view is not far from an intellectualised pimp's.

Only three times in the film does the heroine experience arousal, and it's always in the context of a staged routine. Sex has no backstage in Showgirls. She gets turned on rehearsing James's dance, but calls a halt. She's even turned on while dancing a duet with Cristal, who then rejects her. Finally, she goes all the way with Zack, but this encounter is no less choreographed. He's in charge of the lighting, and she disrobes with brazen modesty, turning 360 degrees before she tiptoes down to the swimming- pool.

Modern woman has to do all the work, even when she's not being paid for it directly. Nomi writhes and twists in the water, shaking her head convulsively, covering her lover with chlorinated suds. It's like a pelvis powered Jacuzzi. Apparently in Vegas the way you ask if someone had a good time is: "Did the water move for you?"

n On release from tomorrow