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Paul Verhoeven crafts an elusive vision in his sexually and religiously charged “The Fourth Man”

The surreal, erotic Dutch-language psychological thriller is screening at UW Cinematheque on 35mm this Thursday, July 15.

The surreal, erotic Dutch-language psychological thriller is screening at UW Cinematheque on 35mm this Thursday, July 15.

Photo: In a sequence from “The Fourth Man,” the protagonist has a vision of one of his erotic interests, Herman, as a crucified Christ.

A provocative, deliriously stylized, and kaleidoscopic high-camp psychosexual thriller about the complex, often warped relationship between life and literature, Paul Verhoeven’s 1983 film The Fourth Man [De vierde man] serves as a spiritual predecessor to the controversial director’s more widely known Basic Instinct (1992).

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Gerard Reve’s 1981 novella De vierde man provides the basis for Verhoeven’s final Dutch-language picture before he went to Hollywood. He and screenwriter Gerard Soeteman tell the strange story of Gerard Revé (Jeroen Krabbé), a dissipated, bisexual Catholic writer (sharing the same name as the novella’s author) who has disturbingly violent visions of death as he becomes entangled in an intricately woven web of intrigue, paranoia, and obsession. UW Cinematheque offers two free screenings of The Fourth Man on 35mm this Thursday, July 15 at 5 and 7 p.m.

The film boldly opens with a close-up of a spider cocooning flies caught in its web and crawling over a crucified Jesus figurine. This potent visual metaphor perfectly encapsulates the film’s themes while setting the stage for the lurid melodrama that follows. Gerard awakens dazed and naked, staggers out of bed, gulps down some wine to steady his shaking hands, and fantasizes about murdering his lover before leaving Amsterdam to deliver a lecture at a literary society in Flushing.

When Gerard arrives, he encounters the treasurer, Christine Halsslag (Renée Soutendijk), a wealthy, seductive, androgynous cosmetologist and widow who films him with a handheld camera. Gerard addresses the audience and reveals the secret to his creative process, which consists in extracting details from his everyday life and embellishing them. His remarks are the key to appreciating The Fourth Man. “If I tell that story often enough, I’ll start to believe it myself,” he explains. “And that, I think, is the essence of my work. I lie the truth. Until I no longer know whether something did or did not happen.” 

Christine invites Gerard to her home and the two share a passionate evening of carnal pleasure. Their one-night stand eventually becomes a more complicated affair after Christine asks Gerard to stay and he becomes infatuated with her other lover, Herman (Thom Hoffman), an attractive young German plumber who apparently does not satisfy Christine in the bedroom. Gerard offers to correct Herman’s sexual shortcomings for her while secretly planning to seduce him. When Christine leaves Gerard alone in the house to fetch Herman from Cologne, he ends up drinking himself into a stupor and discovering a few reels of Christine’s home movies. After watching them and noticing a certain pattern in her past life, Gerard suspects that Christine may be leading him to his doom.

Verhoeven and cinematographer Jan de Bont meticulously craft a dreamlike, erotically charged atmosphere, while presenting a seamless succession of grotesque tableaux, lush textures, and haunting visual motifs. As Gerard becomes increasingly apprehensive about Christine’s intentions, the boundaries between his vivid inner life and his tumultuous corporeal existence begin to dissolve rapidly. The Fourth Man heightens the tension between Gerard’s fragmentary, alcoholic reveries and the ominous events of his waking life until it’s no longer clear what is real or illusory. New York Times critic Janet Maslin once called Verhoeven’s film a “feature-length hallucination.” Has Gerard fallen into the trap of a cunning, diabolical temptress whose machinations and subterfuges beckon men to their demise? Or are his bizarre paranoid gothic fantasies the product of his morbid Catholic upbringing and his fertile, overactive imagination? 

At once a delicately balanced masterpiece of ambiguity, a multilayered, nightmarish descent into one man’s personal hell, a brilliant exercise in genre subversion, and an eye-popping cinematic spectacle, The Fourth Man exemplifies Verhoeven’s florid, overwrought style, while compelling the viewer to constantly question their own perception. Filled with exquisite, novelistic detail, extravagant religious symbolism, shocking, over-the-top gore, and gorgeous, sexually explicit images, The Fourth Man unfolds like a sly, feverish satire of a serious-minded European art film.

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