The global recognition of Paul Verhoeven‘s successes, such as RoboCop, Basic Instinct, and Total Recall, is widely known, yet it is uncertain how many are familiar with his more personal cinematic endeavors, such as the captivating 1983 movie The 4th Man.
It is an opera with a decidedly darker and more European soul, as well as a protagonist who makes no effort to be heroic or please the audience.
The entire story revolves around Gerard Reve, a grumpy and passionate Dutch writer who, yet, possesses a tremendous imagination and irony, capturing everyday aspects of the world around him and transforming them into successful novels.
Besides his fame, he is also quite active in his sexual life, engaging with both men and women, treating all of them with the same combination of charm, disdain, and aggression he applies to every aspect of his life.
He becomes the lover of the mysterious and seductive Christine Halsslag, a high society woman whom he knows from one of his conferences and who next accompanies him to her enormous and opulent mansion.
After having sex, he finds out that he is not the only lover in the house since the humble mechanic Herman also lives there and doesn’t like having a rival in his quest to conquer the woman.
However, Gerard is not hostile towards Herman at all. On the contrary, he feels an attraction to him, almost more so than Christine herself. Together, they uncover the past of the woman’s ex-husbands, three men who all died in peculiar accidents.
After odd visions of his death, Gerard becomes convinced that Christine is actually a witch, wishing to choose who will be her fourth man and victim, joining the other three in the burial urns at the cemetery.
The elegant madness of uncertainty
Although I love every single movie from Paul Verhoeven‘s American period (leaving aside Showgirls), all his big hits are a far cry from the first films in his homeland, Holland.
Furthermore, in the case of The 4th Man, to the recipe of this 1983 movie, we add the unmistakable influence of Alfred Hitchcock‘s immortal thrillers, whose innate suspense combines with Verhoeven’s ironic and never vulgar eroticism.
Starting from the novel by Gerard Reve, the namesake of the story’s protagonist, the screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, reduces the pages and events to the carnal and human cinematic essence that best gives it the right light.
Speaking of light, it is impossible not to mention the excellent work of photography by Jan de Bont, another predestined for success who would later land in Hollywood directing the spectacular and adrenaline-filled Speed with Keanu Reeves.
It is a very luxurious setting that surrounds the protagonist’s crazy visions of prediction of a dark future, together with a blonde and sexy femme fatale who has an almost boyish body, pushing the alcoholic author to finally lose himself in his madness pervaded by religious images.
I am aware that, obviously, this is not a film for everyone and will never be a blockbuster; however, I am always ready to welcome a thriller with surreal notes like this one that appears on the scene, full of nuances to be discovered in the hidden depths of each stage and frames.
Simple, yet delightfully complex
Jeroen Krabbé portrays a humorous and disrespectful character, an alcoholic pulp writer we witness from the start waking up in bed, without clothes and drunk, while being consumed with the idea of violently killing his male partner.
He possesses a unique ability to combine the widely recognized and acknowledged (or disputed) topics of sex and death, infusing each conversation with intellectual and incisive comedy.
However, the profound symbolism and the deliberate blurring between reality and fiction are exemplified by the captivating Renée Soutendijk, an actress with a distinctive beauty of understated and androgynous appearance, almost concealing her true gender and nevertheless with innate femininity bursts forth with an intoxicating presence, saturated with pheromones, in every scene.
This visual short circuit works at almost unconscious levels, as well as the script, packed with religious flashes and literary quotes fueling the dark motivations behind this seduction that, minute after minute, seems more and more like a trap without a way out.
Ultimately, the character portrayed by Thom Hoffman embodies the archetypal charming city tough guy yet succumbs to the protagonist’s seduction in a oneiric homosexual scene, which serves as both a revelation and a final comprehension of the enigmatic secrets surrounding the (perhaps?) witch.
This threesome is a perfect ensemble featuring their eccentricity, constantly defying expectations, providing the audience with the delightful uncertainty of being unable to anticipate what will happen at any moment.
Paul Verhoeven deftly weaves his exuberant artistic skills to create a suspenseful portrait firmly rooted in a delightfully intricate but easy-to-follow plot, skillfully exploring subtle themes in his thought-provoking way while also embedding a plethora of visual and narrative surprises.