If all you know about filmmaker Paul Verhoeven is his Hollywood career, forget what you think you know. If Verhoeven begins and ends for you with movies like Robocop (1987), Showgirls (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997), then you really don’t know Paul Verhoeven at all. Verhoeven is the classic example of a great filmmaker corrupted and even ruined by the lure of Hollywood filmmaking. Prior to his Hollywood career, Verhoeven created an astonishing body of work in his native Holland, the best of which was The Fourth Man (1983). The film became an art house sensation on these shores in 1984—and for good reason. This highly-charged, beautifully crafted, heavily symbolic homoerotic thriller is stunning—as stunning today as it was when it electrified audiences 23 years ago.
The story follows the adventures of an intensely Catholic, gay alcoholic writer Gerard Reve (Jeroen Krabbé) who travels to a seaside town to deliver a lecture to a literary group. At the train station he spots and becomes fixated on a young man, Herman (Thom Hoffman), but loses track of him at a newsstand. During the trip itself he has a bizarre dream—possibly a mystical vision of impending danger—about the hotel where he’s slated to stay, so he’s more than happy to accept the offer of literary society treasurer Christine Halsslag (Renee Soutendijk) to stay at her house. Despite Gerard’s sexuality, he ends up sleeping with Christine and becoming friendly with her—even more so when he discovers that the young man in the train station is her boyfriend. On the pretext of improving her relationship with Herman, Gerard opts to stay a few days to meet and talk with the young man. Of course, in reality, he plans on seducing him. However, Gerard continues to have creepy symbolic visions. And more, Gerard learns that Christine has had three husbands, all of whom met spectacularly untimely deaths. The question in his mind then becomes whether he or Herman is slated to become the fourth man.
Intriguing as the plot is, the film’s strength comes from the details, the tone. The film examines the connections between Christianity and sex (there’s a scene with Gerard and a life-size crucifixion in a church that is delightfully shocking), and between Christianity and magic. Taking full advantage of the freedom afforded by a film that would for obvious reasons never be submitted for an MPAA rating in the U.S. (the frank, graphic sexuality would have never gotten an R), Verhoeven boldly presents scenes of nudity and sex that are still startling, but all of which serve to make the film’s points.
At the same time, Verhoeven is careful not to come down on either side of the question of reality and illusion. Early in the film, Gerard takes a series of prosaic events and spins them into a wonderfully strange story, telling his audience that he “lies the truth”—and that can perhaps also be said of the film. (This is enhanced by the fact that the author of the source novel for the film, Gerard Reve, is the writer Krabbé plays in the film. The story itself may be the writer “lying the truth.”) There’s a very good chance that all the mysticism and magic in the film may, in fact, be real—and if it is, then it presents a take on Christianity that can only be called subversive. As an exercise in beautifully formal filmmaking (the technical side of the film is flawless and endlessly inventive), The Fourth Man is brilliant enough. But as a personal, unorthodox, strangely compelling meditation on sex and religion, it’s one of the most striking films of its era. Few films are so densely textured and rich. It will make you want to slap Verhoeven for coming to Hollywood.