Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The Fourth Man (Verhoeven, 1983)

A clear precursor to his early nineties box-office hit, Basic Instinct, Paul Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man tells the story of a man who finds himself ensnared by a woman who is dynamite in bed, but possibly very dangerous out of it. Much like his American output, The Fourth Man aspires no higher than schlock. In this respect, the film is certainly at least a partial success with its casual use of nudity (genitals arrive just after the opening credits!), its over-the-top violence and its occasional moments of “oh-no-you-didn’t” audacity. Verhoeven uses symbols – notably a statue of Jesus that receives adoration above and beyond the call of duty – however, it is clear that he doesn’t really believe in them. They are employed not necessarily to provide his film with depth, but in order to allow Verhoeven opportunities to titillate the viewer with perversions and grotesqueries.

Gerard is a successful writer who is scheduled to give a lecture in Vlissingen, but along the way has a dark premonition that seems to warn of impending danger. Because the vision features the town’s local hotel, he opts to spend the night with one of the lecture’s attendees, a beautician named Christine who has the curious habit of continuously videotaping Gerard. Though he has a live-in boyfriend, Gerard is more than happy to share his hostess’ bed, particularly because she has boyish features. Quickly though, Gerard’s attention turns to Christine’s other lover, a plumber named Herman who has the kind of body that actually looks decent in a Speedo. He encourages Christine to invite her lover over while he is still around, secretly hoping to get a piece of the action. However, left alone to sift through Christine’s video footage, he uncovers a rather distressing pattern.

Though the film is not much different than Basic Instinct in the way it prioritizes sensationalism, it is more tolerable due to the absence of actors like Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone whose self-importance seemed to act as a roadblock to Verhoeven achieving an appropriate tone. Whereas Stone and Douglas seemed to beg us to take them seriously in the midst of tawdry absurdities, Renée Soutendijk and Jeroen Krabbé are refreshingly goofy, pitching their performances somewhere between Fassbinder and Hitchcock. I was particularly fond of Krabbé’s drunken video screening session in which he expresses disgust with what he sees on-screen, all the while failing to reach the conclusions that seem to us as viewers quite obvious. And for all the praise of Stone’s performance, it is rather doubtful that she would have been game enough to allow her breasts to be covered while her male partner raved about how much her naked body resembled a boy’s.

Despite the odd moment of humor and amusing naughtiness, it is difficult to respond to The Fourth Man with a high degree of enthusiasm. It is a mystery that is never mysterious and a thriller that is seldom thrilling. Verhoeven mixes in a dose of religious imagery, but only because such things are certain to get a rise out of somebody and not because he wishes to make any sort of sustained commentary. A little bit of kinkiness and perversion is always at least a little bit fun, but with Verhoeven, it is somehow less so. Perhaps it is because there is no sense of taboo – thus taking away our thrill when a taboo is broken. Depending on your mood, The Fourth Man is either amusing enough to exceed low expectations or too insubstantial to be bothered with.



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