"I lie the truth, until I no longer know whether something did or did not happen."—Gerard Reve (Jeroen Krabbè)
So what is the deal with Paul Verhoeven? For every good movie (Total Recall, for instance), he makes a bad one (Showgirls). For every clever satire (Robocop), he makes an overserious and empty thriller (Basic Instinct). Are there two of him? And don't get me started on his fellow Dutchman, Jan de Bont. Speed was slick fun, but The Haunting was vacuous celluloid tripe of the worst order. Before these two left Holland for the United States, they followed up a critically shaky career in their home country with the breakthrough thriller The Fourth Man. Which Paul Verhoeven directed this one?
Facts of the Case
The symbolism cannot be mistaken: a spider climbs over a crucified figure of Jesus in pursuit of a struggling fly. And alcoholic writer, Gerard Reve (Jeroen Krabbè) cannot find his bearings, tipping his glass to a statue of the Virgin Mary, as he takes the first drink of the day with shaking hands. He imagines strangling his current lover to silence the pretty young man's grating violin.
Traveling to Flushing to give a lecture, Gerard is drawn in by a beautiful salon owner, Christine Halslag (Renée Soutendijk). He sleeps with her, planning to leave the next morning. But when he discovers a photo of her hunky boyfriend Herman (Thom Hoffman), Gerard decides that he must have that young man.
But Gerard's lust for Herman may blind him to Christine's terrible secret: her last three husbands died in mysterious accidents. Gerard begins to wonder, will Herman be the fourth man to die? Or will Gerard?
After the critical failure of his World War II epic Soldier of Orange, Paul Verhoeven decided to tweak Dutch film critics who expected a more "artsy" movie. The Fourth Man is artsy to a ridiculous extreme. Saturated with images borrowed from symbolist and surrealist art, the film hammers the viewer over the head in every scene. For example, early in the film, a woman (whom we will see repeatedly in the film as the embodiment of the Virgin Mary) on the train with Gerard sits with her toddler (whose shirt reads "Daddy's Boy"). She peels an apple, then shapes the peel into a halo over the boy's head. Get it? Then Gerard hallucinates that he is at the Hotel Bellevue (a double joke, referring to the similarly named mental hospital, but also meaning "good sight"), checking into Room 4, whose peephole transforms into an oozing eyeball.
It all becomes a game. See how many instances of the color red you can find. Hey, look, Gerard is drinking a Bloody Mary (oh, there's Mary again). How about those red flower petals blowing in the breeze? Or that sign that reads "Donate Your Blood to the Red Cross"—and there is that cross again!
It is all much too much. And indeed it is supposed to be. Just as it is unclear in Total Recall whether we are meant to be watching a straight-faced action film, or a deliberately excessive send-up of action film clichés, The Fourth Man can be seen on both levels.
It works better as a comedy however. Which is why the film is more effective than its evil-twin Basic Instinct, large parts of which Verhoeven lifted wholesale from this earlier film. In The Fourth Man, we are never sure if Christine is really a threat to Gerard, or if his paranoia is the result of increasing psychosis. Is Christine really a witch, some black widow spider with special powers to cause "accidents," or is Gerard just crazy? Even the symbolism works both ways: when Christine and Gerard arrive at her salon, the burned-out neon sign says "SPIN" (Dutch for "spider"), but when Christine taps it, the relit sign says "SPHINX." Of course, either way, the film suggests that Christine is manipulative and potentially destructive, a typically aloof woman from a Paul Verhoeven masochistic fantasy.
In The Fourth Man, Christine's destructive nature (whether supernatural or not) is filtered through the skewed perspective of an alcoholic, homosexual writer who seems to be undergoing a bizarre religious epiphany. Much like the real Gerard Reve, who wrote the original short novel Verhoeven and screenwriter Gerard Soeteman adapted for the film. But The Fourth Man is far from a roman à clef: it is a psychosexual thriller that often undermines its own narrative authority. Verhoeven gives us plenty of hints that we should not take things too seriously, particularly through Gerard's erratic behavior: his childish lust for Herman, his desperately facile attempt to fake psychic powers in order to trick Christine, and his increasingly baroque hallucinations. Everything in Gerard's world becomes steeped in irony. Thus, Verhoeven's usual misogyny is more palatable here than it is in Basic Instinct, because the later film's naturalistic style (also photographed by Jan de Bont) and screenplay (written by Joe Eszterhas, whose attempts at irony are never funny—intentionally at least) never suggests that the women might be anything other than as presented (that is, manipulative, castrating bitches), or that we might have any question about what the elusive and panoptic camera sees. In The Fourth Man, we have nothing left in the end but irony.
But it is fairly lovely irony nonetheless. Anchor Bay has cleaned up The Fourth Man, visually at least (story content has sex and gore in spades, as is typical of Verhoeven, so consider yourself warned), with an anamorphic transfer that causes its oversaturated colors to pop out forcefully. The sound is less spectacular: a nerveless mono mix. Extra content includes a rather dark theatrical trailer and a brief (five minute) storyboard gallery that consists of seemingly random, individual boards and their comparable shots. The talent bios of Verhoeven, Krabbè, and Soutendijk are quite substantive and well-written, honestly appraising Verhoeven's mixed critical success.
The commentary track is another case of mixed success. While it is always welcome when an older foreign film gets a commentary track, Verhoeven's comments range from helpful (noting where the film borrows from surrealism and symbolism, Edward Hopper, Bergman, Hitchcock, and others—although oddly Carol Reed's The Third Man, an obvious influence on both the film's premise and its early lecture scene goes unmentioned) to pointless (most of the track consists of Verhoeven describing obvious plot points). Both Krabbè and Soutendijk speak English quite well, and it might have been nice to round them up for a reunion on this commentary track, if only to lower the redundancy of Verhoeven's plot summary. Verhoeven is quite clear up front that the movie is meant to be a joke and that Christine's guilt is deliberately ambiguous.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If The Fourth Man leaves us steeped in irony, as a properly postmodern parody of an art film should do (and I mean that with all the irony that I can muster), then it also leaves us with a problem. The film is a darkly comic game, loaded in every scene with symbols, in-jokes, and film references. Get your friends together and see how many you spot. Of course, all this cleverness and smug irony makes the film rather soulless. It is requisitely scary in spots, funny in others. But all that is more a function of the skills of Paul Verhoeven and Jan de Bont to create an aesthetic effect. Do not look for characters to empathize with here. As in Verhoeven's Hollywood films (sometimes intentionally and sometimes not), the characters here are puppets. This is a world where women wear high heels to bed, people bring raw meat to handfeed lions at safari parks, and the Virgin Mary wanders around in cemeteries. If you do not take it seriously, you will likely get a kick out of this film. But in the end, you may wonder if the entire jokey exercise is as hollow as Kevin Bacon's character in Verhoeven's latest "serious" film.
The Fourth Man is a study in everything that is right and wrong about Paul Verhoeven's career as a director. When he makes films that are meant to be comedies, his vicious sense of irony pays off in an entertaining if cynical film. When he makes "serious" films, they usually end up as unintentional (and often insulting) comedies. I recommend The Fourth Man as a rental, a fun film to watch with a group of friends to play the "spot the symbol" game.
This court admits no jurisdiction over Catholic epiphanies, but it hopes that Paul Verhoeven will have some sort of more secular epiphany soon about what kinds of movies he does best. Anchor Bay is released for an honest attempt at polishing up a rough gem.
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