The Fourth Man (De vierde man)
Screenplay : Gerard Soeteman (based on the novel by Gerard Reve)
MPAA Rating : NR
Year of Release : 1983
Stars : Jeroen Krabbe (Gerard), Renee Soutendijk (Christine), Thom Hoffman (Herman), Dolf de Vries (Dr. de Vries), Geert de Jong (Ria), Hans Veerman (Begrafenisondernemer)
The opening scene of Paul Verhoeven's Dutch erotic comedy/thriller "The Fourth Man" is none too subtle: in queasy close-up it shows a large spider capturing and devouring a helpless fly that has become caught in its web. For a film that deals with a blond femme fatal who may or may not have knocked off three husbands and may or may not be positioning herself to get a fourth, this is not a good sign.
Of course, this is only one of many signs the film gives us that the protagonist, a controversial alcoholic writer named Gerard Reves (Jeroen Krabbe) is in trouble. He first meets Christine Halsslag (Renee Soutendijk), the femme fatale in question, when he is the featured speaker for the meeting of a literary club. She has her eye on him from the first moment, and spends a great deal of time filming him with an 8-millimeter camera.
When she talks him into staying in town for the night instead of returning to his home in Amsterdam, the feeling begins to sink in that something is not quite right. That feeling becomes solid when she takes him back to her home, half of which functions as a beauty salon. The bright neon sign on the front of the building is supposed to read "SPHINX," but the "H" and the "X" don't work very well, so most of the time it reads "SPIN." That doesn't mean much to English speakers, but the film's subtitles quickly inform us that "SPIN" is the Dutch word for "SPIDER."
Gerard and Christine spend the night together, and Gerard, who has a strange, Bergmanesque penchant for having dreams and visions of the future laced with religious imagery (he's Catholic, go figure), has a nightmare that Christine castrates him with a pair of scissors. By this point, we're sure he's in for it, but the film progresses steadily onward. The next morning, we learn that Christine's line of cosmetics is called "Delilah," as in the woman in the Biblical story who tricks Sampson into letting her cut off his hair, thus taking away his awesome strength. Needless to say, immediately after we learn this fact, we are treated to a scene of Christine giving Gerard a little trim. And then, right after Christine talks Gerard into staying longer, the scene cuts to an image suggesting a noose.
But, just when we think we've got it all figured out, the movie turns on us. Gerard, who is bisexual, happens upon a love letter and a striking picture of one of Christine's old lovers, a young, self-absorbed German plumber named Herman (Thom Hoffman). Gerard is so taken with the picture, that he whispers to himself, "I must have him, even if it kills me."
He then tricks Christine into inviting Herman to stay at her house while he is there so that he may seduce him. With this plot introduction, everything is thrown into turmoil and we no longer know who is playing who. If Christine is this icy femme fatale luring Gerard to his death like a spider, then why can he so easily trick her to satisfy his own libido? Or does she know he's tricking her, and it's part of her overall scheme?
Verhoeven has great fun with the twists in the plot and the complete lack of morality evidenced by each of the principle characters. He made this film early in his career, almost ten years before he came to America and made "RoboCop" in 1987, solidified his position as the grand master of artful sleaze with "Basic Instinct" in 1992, and almost ruined himself with the disastrous "Showgirls" in 1995. His excessive style and tendency to delve into the outrageous are all on display here, never so badly as when Gerard seduces Herman in a crypt that just happens to be occupied by the ashes of Christine's unfortunate husbands.
"The Fourth Man" was based on a novel by Dutch author Gerard Reve, who lent his name to the confused protagonist. The film is supposed to play as a black comedy, but there are few outright laughs unless you get true pleasure from watching human cruelty. Each character is self-absorbed and depraved in his or her own way, and lies are plentiful all around. In fact, by the time the film draws to its very strange, religiously-inspired close, we still aren't sure who was responsible for what, and where the real truth lies.
The acting is what keep the film afloat, especially the central performance by Krabbe. He is appropriately sly and seductive in his own right, but he could just as easily become a victim. This is true of all the characters, and it this tendency to see them as both the spider and the fly that gives the film is weight and keeps it chugging along to the end.
Subtle it is not. Entertaining it is.
©1997 James Kendrick