Paul Verhoeven’s erotic drama The Fourth Man (De vierde Man) opens, to ominous Wagnerian rumbling, on a black screen and then as the credits roll Verhoeven dramatically reveals a spider in close-up, first stunning a fly caught in its web and then cocooning it in silk. The whole process, in agonising detail.
What Verhoeven treats us to over the next 100 minutes is a garish, extended version of the same idea. In many respects it’s a warm-up for Basic Instinct, with Jeroen Krabbé in the Michael Douglas role and Renée Soutendijk as the blonde, deadly spider.
The read-across isn’t total and for much of the film it isn’t really clear who is the spider and who the fly, since Krabbé’s character, the drunken, bisexual, access-all-areas writer Gerard Reve, looks like a classic predator.
In early scenes, we watch the hungover Gerard padding naked through his apartment, where he imagines killing his violinist partner, before he heads out to give a self-aggrandising talk about his work to a roomful of admiring fans. On the way he tries but fails to pick up a handsome guy at a newsagent’s, then eventually strikes lucky with the female treasurer of the society he’s been regaling with his talk about the interchangeability of truth and lies.
“You have the body of a beautiful boy,” Gerard compliments the naked Christine (Soutendijk) before they get down to business. “And these?” she responds, thrusting her tits in his face. Later, after a night of glorious sex, she reveals that she was once married, and also that she already has a lover, who turns out to be the guy Gerard was trying to accost the previous day and who he has been fantasising about since.
One of these fantasies involves Gerard in a church imagining the young man in his red Speedos nailed to the cross like Jesus Christ. Gerard runs his hands up and down his lightly oiled body. Jesus Christ is what you might think as the scene plays out.
It’s around here that Gerard realises that Christine hasn’t been married once before but three times. Who’s going to be the fourth man – Gerard himself or Mr Speedos? Duh, duh, duuuuh – Loek Dikker’s score literally does that.
It’s a great, almost Agatha Christie-esque story, but done as a straight-faced comedy, as most of Verhoeven’s films are, a commentary on the thriller genre as much as a thriller itself, the killer plot element being the switcheroo. Gerard the guy who considers himself the man in charge suddenly realising he’s being lined up for a silk cocoon. Verhoeven sprinkles imagery of death throughout, in case we hadn’t got it.
Verhoeven’s love of excess is given full rein since he’s making this film in the Netherlands rather than the USA. Nudity jostles with religious iconography blasphemously – Gerard is an ardent Catholic, or so he says – and Verhoeven seems to be looking towards Douglas Sirk for inspiration as he piles on the melodrama. If Gerard is the man who wants it all, whether it’s in Speedo’s or a negligée, so does Verhoeven’s film.
The DP is Jan De Bont, later the director of Speed, but here he gives Verhoeven what he presumably asked for, a kind of soft-core, soft-edged 1980s pop promo look with noirish basics.
The acting comes from a similar place – slightly camp, slightly affectless, adding to the general sense of solidity being called into question. Truth and lies, being awake or in a dream, fantasy and reality, the writer’s imagination and the material world, Verhoeven tries to yoke them all to his cart and gets some of the way there in that teasing Verhoevian way suggesting he’s not really in earnest about any of it, not even his own ideas.
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