The Fourth Man Review
By the time director Paul Verhoeven came to make his sixth Dutch feature, De Vierde Man (The Fourth Man), he had become one of Holland’s premier cinematic talents. Several of his previous films had become some of the most popular in Dutch history, helping to sustain the rather undernourished Dutch film industry as a result, and more importantly in terms of his own subsequent career, Verhoeven had also achieved international recognition for both Turkish Delight and, in particular, Soldier Of Orange. Despite this, however, critics in his native country still relished the prospect of slating the filmmaker whenever he put a foot wrong. His deeply flawed costume epic Katie Tippel had been almost unanimously panned, his long-cherished and indeed internationally successful pet project Soldier Of Orange had nonetheless been accused of pandering to the Hollywood style of filmmaking and most notably, the national furore over his highly controversial melodrama Spetters had given detractors all the ammo they needed when charges of prurience and exploitation were levelled at the director. Critics had never been impressed by Verhoeven’s style of filmmaking, believing that the director had surrendered his artistic integrity to commercial imperatives. For his part, Verhoeven had gone on record as saying that he disliked the elitist attitudes and intellectual snobbery he had perceived amongst many of Holland’s most well-known film critics and steadfastly refused to confine himself to making films that would appeal only to their highbrow tastes. The director’s constant battles with the Dutch media had, however, worn him down, and, with Hollywood now knocking at his door, the erotic and dream-like thriller, The Fourth Man would be Verhoeven’s last film made in his native tongue. And quite a farewell it turned out to be too, remaining, for this reviewer, not only Verhoeven’s finest Dutch film to date, but also succeeding as an ironical and diabolically funny black comedy, a crafty riposte to the very critics who had accused the director of selling out in the first place.
The film shares the perspective of alcoholic writer, Gerard Reve (Jeroen Krabbe), an arrogant and self-obsessed man whose delirious fantasies fuel his literary work and, as we shall see, have a strange habit of colliding with real life. Giving a lecture to a literary club in Vlissingen about his work, he explains to the assembled crowd that his writing involves incorporating aspects of his own personal experiences into his fiction, as he states: “I lie the truth”. Indeed, as the film progresses, Reve’s rather overactive imagination will bring into question just how rational this man might be. It is at this lecture that he first meets the alluring and enigmatic Christine Halslag (Renee Soutendijk), the club’s treasurer and owner of a local hairdressing salon, who offers him a room for the night. He gratefully accepts and the couple end up spending the night together. However, from the moment he hooks up with Christine, Reve’s fantasies become more nightmarish and bizarre, the writer hallucinating surrealistic images of decay and impending death involving bloody carcasses, oozing eyes, and most puzzlingly, repeated appearances of the number four. Christine tells Reve that she is a rich but unhappy widow who yearns for some long-term companionship. Although the scrounging author is only too happy to accept all that she has to offer him (including sex, money, even a free haircut!), he is still reluctant to commit himself to anyone, that is, until he sets eyes on a photograph of her current boyfriend, Herman (Thom Hoffman). Reve is instantly smitten with the young man, and the conniving writer tries to manipulate Christine in a sneaky effort to get his hands on her lover. But who is really manipulating whom? Is Christine really as innocent and harmless as she seems? When Reve learns that she has lost not one but three previous husbands in mysterious circumstances, he (and indeed, the audience) begins to wonder. Does the numb spot on her back have some sinister significance? Why does she keep recording him on camera? Is he letting his vivid imagination run away with him, or is Christine lining him up as endangered spouse number four?
[ N.B. It is difficult to discuss The Fourth Man without mentioning certain story details so you should skip down a few paragraphs if you have not yet seen the film. Also, I am aware of the irony of discussing a film that was intended to take the piss out of film critics but the film’s playful subversiveness and undeniable artistry are nonetheless worthy of a discussion in terms of Verhoeven’s work as a whole.] Of course, the first thing that strikes the viewer about The Fourth Man is that it can be read on two levels. On one hand, events may be happening exactly as the central character believes they are, with black widow Christine trying to lure another victim into her web (as suggested by the film’s title sequence). On the other hand, Reve (the word itself means ‘dream’ in French) may simply be imagining the whole thing. The opening fantasy scene, for example, where Reve imagines himself strangling his gay lover certainly gives weight to the notion that he might be psychologically unstable. So is he really paranoid or is something terrible about to happen to him? Verhoeven never provides a conclusive answer one way or the other, and this practice of wilfully constructing multiple interpretations of his films is something that comes up in much of the director’s later work. For example, sci-fi satire Robocop also doubles quite effectively as a Christ metaphor, Total Recall never discloses whether it is a futuristic chase thriller or simply a virtual reality role-playing adventure gone awry, and the widely misunderstood Starship Troopers continues to divide audiences who view it either as cheesy B-movie trash, a disastrous screen adaptation of writer Robert Heinlein’s original novel, or an intelligent and witty subversion of it. The Fourth Man is, therefore, an important film in Verhoeven’s oeuvre as it marks the point at which the filmmaker abandoned the gritty naturalism of his earlier movies in favour of more stylised, conceptually ambitious, even subversive work.
Religion, or perhaps I should say religiosity, has an important function in The Fourth Man, most obviously in the conspicuous and indeed mischievous way Verhoeven (over)loads the film with religious and biblical symbolism. There are numerous examples scattered throughout the picture, perhaps the most blatant of which is the ‘woman in blue’, a character Reve comes to believe represents the Virgin Mary, a figure who acts as a guardian angel to our tormented protagonist, sporadically warning him of danger during the movie and tending to him when he is injured, a protective femme celeste to Christine’s destructive femme fatale. If it is the case that Reve is a deranged schizophrenic, a morbid alcoholic obsessively imagining ways in which he might die, then these biblically-inspired hallucinations might offer a valuable insight into his psychological makeup. Reve’s status as a Catholic plays an important role in his fictive work - “being a Catholic means having an imagination” - but we should not forget that this is also a man conflicted about his own homosexuality, as evidenced by his unusual behaviour when first having sex with Christine. His delusions might therefore represent a manifestation of his own Catholic guilt, an adverse symptom of his inability to reconcile his own religious beliefs with the truth about his sexuality. (Incidentally, it should be noted that the real-life Gerard Reve, the author of the short story on which this film is based, was indeed a homosexual and a convert to Catholicism and often used his fictional writing to explore both his own sexuality and his fervent Mariolatry, apparently a major theme of his work. No doubt this autobiographical crossing over between reality and imagination appealed to Verhoeven and screenwriter Gerard Soeteman who expanded upon Reve’s original story to include more of these details about the writer’s life.)
I must say that the first time I saw The Fourth Man, I became fascinated with the way Verhoeven managed to imbue almost every scene with prophetic significance (not entirely dissimilar to Nicolas Roeg’s masterful Don’t Look Now in fact), creating an eerie sense of unease and foreboding that held my attention even after I realised that the director’s self-consciously ‘arty’ approach was intended facetiously (more on this below). The dream sequences in particular attest to this notion of prognostication, where important events are foreshadowed in a disturbing and highly surrealistic way. Indeed, the entire film is constructed around this idea of forewarning the central character (and the audience) that something terrible is going to happen. Even setting aside the explicitly ominous dream scenes, Verhoeven packs the film with a plethora of sight gags (such as the broken neon sign outside Christine’s salon that reads ‘SPHINX’ as ‘SPIN’ - the Dutch word for spider!), symbols, icons and assorted clues (like Christine’s reckless car ride that prefigures the horror of the film’s climax) to persuade us that misfortune is imminent and that nothing should be taken at face value. As the director has said of the symbolist, surrealist thinking behind the film: “everything has an exceptional value.” The Magic Realist aspect of the story - a kind of supernatural interconnectedness existing between disparate scenes in the movie, between reality and fantasy - also means that the rather far-fetched plot turns in the film remain plausible; the idea, for example, that Christine’s boyfriend turns out to be the young stranger that Reve arbitrarily encountered and unsuccessfully pursued in an earlier scene could only work in this surreal context. [Indeed, it’s a shame that such a surrealistic approach couldn’t have been deployed in The Fourth Man’s less esoteric descendent, Basic Instinct, if only to smooth over a film loaded with narrative inconsistencies and logic loopholes. Although certainly a stylish and very entertaining thriller, I felt that Verhoeven was less persuasive here in his presentation of the Sharon Stone character as the omniscient devil woman. True, Catherine Tramell was a terrific character and Verhoeven did well to invest Stone’s ice queen with as much psychological depth as he did but, unlike The Fourth Man, the notion of her as a preternaturally knowing personification of the Devil was a much harder sell. Here, it felt as if depicting that character in such a way was the only means by which Verhoeven could resolve the many plot holes in Joe Eszterhas’s fun but fundamentally trashy and contrived B-movie script.]
Of course, none of this should be taken too seriously, you understand. In spite of my waffling on about what the film is about, the most important thing to remember about The Fourth Man is that Verhoeven is having fun with the material, teasing his audience, particularly those highbrow critics of whom he came to disapprove so much. Verhoeven has said of the film: “I worked in the same serious way I always do but filled the picture with symbolism, knowing that the critics would interpret it as high art” whilst his screenwriter, Gerard Soeteman, was even more succinct about their intentions: “Our aim was to fuck the Dutch critics, and we did.” No one could possibly miss the pervasive streak of dark, often macabre humour inherent in a story like this - is she really trying to kill him or what? - nor could they fail to see the considerable comedic value provided by our conceited protagonist – Reve’s snooty behaviour towards just about everyone around him, not to mention the parasitic way in which he uses his newfound benefactor, Christine, has never ceased to provoke some guilty laughs from this viewer. Indeed, a wonderful instance of the film’s mischievous, even camp tone is illustrated in the scene where Reve, having surreptitiously read a private letter of Christine’s and now pretending to be psychic, asks to read her palms in order to elicit further personal details about the object of his affections, Herman. The great thing about a scene like this is that the audience is not quite sure who is doing the real manipulating, Reve or Christine, and we can sense in moments like this that Verhoeven enjoys playing the master manipulator himself. In fact, it is hard to believe that Dutch critics treated the film so earnestly when it is Verhoeven’s delicious sense of playfulness that makes The Fourth Man so memorable in the first place. Everything in the film - fantasy sequences that catch the audience off guard (An American Werewolf In London has been credited as an influence), devious narrative touches like the crafty use of Christine’s highly suggestive (and thus unsettling) home movies, the ambiguity of Soutendijk’s performance, Krabbe’s wonderfully overwrought angst, the bloodily unsubtle dream sequences, the excessive use of symbolism – works to subvert our expectations, slowly but surely forcing us to wonder whether the central character is the only one being toyed with. Indeed, on repeated viewings, The Fourth Man seems to me more and more like an extended joke played out against its protagonist and its audience.
Aside from Verhoeven, mention must also go to the other participants whose work contributes so much to the film’s appeal. In the first place, the actors are terrific, with the three leading players delivering clever, daring and highly accomplished turns in their respective roles. Jeroen Krabbe is absolutely superb in the central role of Gerard Reve, effortlessly capturing the selfishness and narcissism of this pompous artist, condescending to those around him but also quick to obsequiousness and manipulation when it gets him what he wants. Actually, considering how obnoxious and egotistical this man can be, it is a tribute to Krabbe’s magnetic performance that we come to feel some genuine sympathy for his character as the story unfolds and the horror of his predicament, whether it is real or imagined, renders him ever more deranged. Renee Soutendijk, in a role comparable to Sharon Stone’s in Basic Instinct, is also marvellous as the seductive Christine, a mysterious and sexy creature constantly tempting Reve in one way or another, whether it be with alcohol (for the alcoholic), sex, money or even with her own lover. The actress seems to revel in the ambivalent nature of her character, allowing Christine to come across as kind-hearted and generous, even fragile on some occasions, yet never letting us get away from the sinister impression that she knows far more than she is letting on. Could she really be a killer? Whichever way you view the character, it is still a magnificently maleficent performance that goes a long way toward convincing the audience of trouble in store. Thom Hoffman is also very effective in the lesser role of Herman, Christine’s possessive and impertinent boyfriend, even courageously appearing in the film’s most controversial scene. Jan de Bont’s beautiful and highly stylised cinematography is also an essential component of the film’s success, his style of shooting and lighting – inspired by painters like Edward Hopper and surrealists like Dali, Magritte and Paul Delvaux – hugely effective in conveying the weird, dreamlike tone of the film. Loek Dikker’s music score too contributes to the unsettling atmosphere prevalent throughout the entire movie. All things considered, though, The Fourth Man will not be suited to all tastes; certainly, if you are in any way squeamish and/or prudish, then my advice is to keep away as the film has scenes of both homo- and hetero-sexual sex, some gruesome images of violence and death, male and female full frontal nudity, not to mention one guaranteed-to-weed-out-the-puritans scene of homoeroticism involving a Christ-like figure on a cross! Furthermore, although I’ve said that the film works best (although not exclusively) as a wicked black comedy, there are bound to be some viewers who will not appreciate the film’s ill-concealed self-mockery, possibly viewing the movie as nothing more than a smug and pretentious melodrama. Indeed, if you don’t get the joke, then the film’s ‘artiness’ might seem too overblown and superficial for your liking. However, if you do have a healthy sense of humour, or if you are at all curious about Paul Verhoeven’s work, I can think of no better example of the director’s technical virtuosity, his strong visual sense, his unique ability to provoke an audience and his devilishly subversive streak than The Fourth Man. Hugely recommended.
Of all the Anchor Bay Verhoeven releases I’ve seen and reviewed thus far, the transfer of The Fourth Man is the finest. Presented in anamorphic 1.66:1, the picture quality is superb. Although the image itself looks quite soft, I’m sure this is an accurate presentation of the film itself, given the unreal look this movie is supposed to have. Grain is evident as a result but not intrusive while artefacts are almost non-existent. The vibrant, delirious colours, particularly the strong reds, blues and greens favoured throughout the movie are gorgeously rendered here and the black level is good. Flesh tones also look realistic and shadow detail is fine. The print used appears to be in excellent shape and dirt and white specks are nowhere to be seen. A great effort.
Presented in Dutch Dolby 2.0 mono (with optional English subtitles), there is (yet again) very little to be said about the soundtrack. Dialogue is clear and, for the most part, hiss-free, although the volume seems to be set a little low, while the ominous music score comes across very well. Ambient sounds, such as thunder and wind, are also nicely conveyed given the limited soundstage.
First of all, the film is contained on 25 chapters. The disc contains static menus accompanied by music from the film and there are some nice menu transitions obviously inspired by the film’s opening and closing title sequences. Similar to the other ‘Paul Verhoeven Collection’ releases, the extras include a theatrical trailer, some original storyboard art (in this case, a 5-minute montage sequence featuring some of Verhoeven’s storyboards accompanied by their corresponding shot from the film backed by the film’s sinister score), detailed talent bios of director Verhoeven and stars Jeroen Krabbe and Renee Soutendijk, and an audio commentary from Verhoeven.
The audio commentary is actually the most disappointing thing about this DVD. As Verhoeven himself admits during his discussion of the film, he wishes that he could have seen the film again before recording the commentary and spends much of his time here collecting his thoughts. As a result, the commentary too often degenerates into one of those let’s-just-describe-exactly-what’s-going-on-onscreen type jobs that end up being mostly redundant (particularly in the case of a film such as this, one that goes out of its way to be unsubtle!) Nevertheless, Verhoeven still manages to reveal some fascinating details about the film’s background, including some interesting info about the life of source writer Gerard Reve, as well as discussing the shooting of the movie (e.g. it was shot almost entirely on location) and the difficulties encountered during its production (leading man Krabbe didn’t seem to enjoy the experience very much, by the sound of it). The director also mentions the various influences on the film – Hitchcock, Dali, Bergman, Dr Zhivago, Vertigo – and the strong parallels between this and his subsequent Basic Instinct. He talks about Jan de Bont’s cinematography and the influence of the surrealists, his casting choices (confessing that he regrets not having collaborated with the talented Renee Soutendijk since then), the symbolist philosophy behind the movie and the enthusiastic critical response to the film. He also comments on the Magic Realism and the supernatural aspects of the story, discussing topics like causality and Jung’s Synchronicity principle and how these relate to the film’s multi-layered narrative. Generally speaking however, Verhoeven spends the bulk of his time explaining what is already obvious so this ends up as probably the weakest of the Anchor Bay Verhoeven commentaries I’ve listened to so far.
Although not a huge commercial success when it was released in Holland, The Fourth Man earned Verhoeven some of the best critical notices of his career. No doubt this delighted a director who had deliberately constructed his film in such a way as to deride the very same elitist Dutch critics who had previously heaped scorn upon the filmmaker for not being ‘artistic’ enough. I can recommend The Fourth Man for many reasons: it’s funny, scary, witty and suspenseful, but perhaps best of all, it offers a chance to observe a supremely skilful director at his most slyly subversive, and for that reason alone, The Fourth Man is an absolute must-see.