Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (1983)

6. The 4th Man
De vierde man

“The 4th Man” would be the last of Paul Verhoeven's early movie made totally within the Netherlands. The controversy that made finding funding for “Spetters” difficult continued with this film. This isn't surprising, considering Verhoeven's sixth film also prominently featured intense violence and homosexual content. “The 4th Man” underperformed in Holland but would continue Verhoeven's critical popularity in America, winning the Dutch director the best abroad reviews of his career. Now, in 2017, “The 4th Man” is widely considered one of the director's best movie. A mixture of erotic thriller, horror, dark comedy, and religious allegory, it's yet another movie that only Paul Verhoeven could make.

Gerard Reve is a respected and popular author but he's got some problems. First off, he's an alcoholic. Secondly, he seems to resent his live-in boyfriend. Finally, he's haunted by hyper-violent hallucinations. While leaving to give a speech in Amsterdam, he spots a beautiful man on the train. At the literary event, Christine, a beautiful but androgynous woman, grabs his attention. They spent the night together and, in the morning, Gerard discovers the beautiful man on the train is also her lover. He decides to stay with Christine, in order to seduce her boyfriend. However, as he learns more about Christine, he discovers her previous three husbands died mysteriously. And now Gerard is increasingly worried he may become her fourth victim.

Plot wise, “The 4th Man” builds upon countless stories about “black widows:” Women who seduce and marry men, before murdering them. It's a comparison the film makes from the very beginning. The opening credits play over footage of a spider capturing a fly in its web, encircling the insect and finally eating it. A little while later, Christine takes Gerard to the hotel where they have sex. A few letters in the hotel's sign – Sphinx – are out, so they spell “Spin,” the Dutch word for spider. This clues the audience in early on where “The 4th Man” may be going, creating a sense of building tension that runs throughout the entire film. You know Christine will be revealed as a murderer. You're just left wondering when.

That's assuming if any of “The 4th Man” can be taken at face value. Deception is part of the story. Gerard is manipulating Christine, so he can get close to Hector, her hunky lover. Christine, in turn, is manipulating both men, into becoming her next victim. If you go further, the entire film may be manipulating the audience. Because of Gerard's sporadic hallucinations, there's no way of knowing how much of the story is real. As his theories about the girl grow more extreme, one begins to wonder if he isn't just imaging everything. This sense of duality also fits into its protagonist's bisexuality. And if Gerard is really exclusively gay, sleeping with Christine is another layer of his deception.

Homoeroticism played a large role in “Spetters,” changing the context of all the male frontal nudity in Verhoeven's previous films. In “The 4th Man,” the main character's queer attributes informs much of the film. Gerard makes love with Christine, but only after noting she looks like a boy with that haircut. When actually having sex, he cover her breasts, to make her look even more androgynous. Herman comes off as a macho man, showing off his bod and bragging about his sexual conquests. Yet Herman's own sexuality proves surprisingly fluid, as Gerard successfully seduces him as a pivotal moment. If deception – something not being what it appears to be – is a main theme of “The 4th Man,” the way sexuality can morph or change fits into the movie's atmosphere.

Paul Verhoeven's obsession with religious iconography makes up a large part of the film. While sitting on the train, Gerard sees an illustration of Samson and Delilah. Later, he discovers that Christine's hair care products are named Delilah. Verhoeven literalizes the emasculating symbolism of Delilah cutting Samson's hair. In a fantasy, Christine cuts off Gerard's dick, instead of his hair. This is but one example of the Christian symbolism peppered throughout “The 4th Man.” That spider in the opening credits crawls over a crucifix. While in a church, Gerard imagines Hector, wearing his skimpy swim trunks, up on the cross. (It seems unlikely that Verhoeven wasn't familiar with the intertwining history of religious iconography and homoerotic images.) There's other stuff too. An infant's head is circled with an apple peel, like a halo. Gerard eventually conflates the child's mother with Mary. To make this extra explicit, she's always dressed in blue, the color most associated with the Holy Virgin.

Yet the most tantalizing symbolism concerns a color. During his train ride, after spotting the Mother and Child figure, Gerard imagines blood flowing down a photo of a building. That same red color reappears throughout the film. Whenever a client appears in Christine's salon, a red light flashes. This matches the red outfit the character wears when first introduced. During a frightening encounter with a dog, red roses blow through the air. A red scarf hangs from some steel poles, which become very dangerous later on. Red is a color with numerous connotations. It means blood. It means danger. At one point, the characters past a sign for the Red Cross, which mirrors an earlier sign promoting Christianity. This links red with Christ. So, in “The 4th Man,” red means Jesus but it also means death. This fits Verhoeven's view of Christianity, as a religion rooted in an act of brutal violence: The crucifixion.

Verhoeven actually made “The 4th Man” in response to critics who claimed the content in his last few films for excesses for excesses' sake. That the film was designed to impress critics is interesting, since it technically belongs to one of the most critically disregarded genres. You see, “The 4th Man” is a horror movie. It's not just because of the murders either. Gerard's bizarre nightmares and daytime hallucinations push the film into the realm of the macabre and horrific. His first hallucination involves a bloody eyeball appearing in place of a door's peephole. Another dream features Herman walking out of the sea, his own eye bloodily dangling from his socket. The most elaborate fantasy involves a key shaped like a pistol – also phallic symbols – and butchered slabs of meat floating over pales. The latter image feels like something out of a Jean Rollin film. The nightmare scenes in “The 4th Man” are intense enough that they make the actual acts of violence more shocking and upsetting.

For all the obvious symbolic elements at work in “The 4th Man,” I noticed another one while watching this time. While giving his lecture on literature, Gerard admits to exaggerating an incident that occurred the day before. He's an author, a storyteller. This certainly fits the possibility that certain parts of “The 4th Man” are imagined by its protagonist. Yet it goes deeper than that. While Gerard is speaking at the podium, Christine is recording him. Later, he discovers that she has recordings of all her ex-husbands. So there's the distinct possibility that Gerard imagines some of the film. Yet other characters are writing this story too, Verhoeven seems to say. Reality is subjective for everyone. (In another weird layer of meta-fiction, Gerard Reve is apparently a real Dutch author, well known and respected in his home country, and wrote the book “The 4th Man” was based on.)

Verhoeven would reunite with two actors who previously appeared in his other films. Jeroen Krabbe, last seen in “Soldier of Orange,” plays Gerard. The author spends most of the movie intoxicated, which certainly fits the stereotypes of the alcoholic writer. This allows Krabbe to play the part as sweaty and desperate as he wants. That works well, since Gerard's mental state is falling apart throughout the story. By the end, he's gone totally around the bend. Krabbe is having a lot of fun, playing a part as manic and unhinged as the film he's a part of.

Starring as Christine is Renee Soutendijk. Soutendijk previously appeared as the seductive Fientje in “Spetters.” At first, the parts seem similar. Both are women who seduce men for their own purposes, with Christine's sexual appeal being no less obvious than Fientje's was. Yet Soutendijk's performances are very different. She plays Christine as mostly sympathetic. When she discusses her dead husbands, she does so with genuine sorrow in her eyes. Soutendijk also summons an unnerving energy, giving a simple smirk great threatening powers. That the performance is so diverse certainly supports the two possibilities inherent in the script. Christine is either a deeply unlucky women, with three dead husbands, or a murdering black widow.

Some refer to “The 4th Man” as a comedy. While I mostly see the movie as an erotic thriller with strong overtones of horror, there are times when Verhoeven is clearly playing the material for laughs. A reveal, that Gerard has arrived at the hotel he's dreamed about, is so overwrought that it must have been intentionally goofy. That same sense of sarcastic melodrama rears its head when the protagonists pass a car crash. It's a brutal moment yet filmed with such detachment that it also becomes morbidly funny. By the conclusion, when Gerard is raving insanely about his theories, it's clear that a streak of absurdity runs through “The 4th Man.” To call the movie a flat-out comedy is misleading but Verhoeven's tendency to mess with the viewer is very apparent.

“The Fourth Man” is also excellently paced. The film's not very long but it rolls along so smoothly, so compellingly, that it feels even shorter than it is. Once the credits started to roll, I genuinely felt like I wanted more. The film is rich in meaning while also functioning as a taut thriller and a twisted horror picture. Strip away all the visual symbolism and you would still have an entertaining piece of pulp. Add it back in and you've got an arresting act of storytelling, the viewer taking every sight in and ruminating over its significance. Verhoeven might have left his home country for the greener California coast but he sure finished up his run of Dutch films with a damn good motion picture. [Grade: A]

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