“Being Catholic means having imagination!” the poet-novelist Gerard Reve replies to a book-club questioner who’s asked how one can still be Catholic in the face of modern science. And Reve ought to know. He’s a walking hotbed of hallucination. Catholic, homosexual, alcoholic, and a poet, Reve is a perfect storm of psychic and emotional tensions, a human recipe for hysteria.
I don’t know just how autobiographical Reve’s celebrated novel De Vierde Man was, but he named his character after himself and told his story in the first person. It’s the story of an alcoholic writer, trapped in a mutually-abusive homosexual relationship, whose life changes dramatically when he journeys to another city to address a literary society. He ends up staying with one of the officers of the club, the delectable temptress Christina Halslaag. She runs a salon called SPHINX, advertised by a defective neon sign that changes its name to SPIN (Dutch for “spider”), where she sells a line of cosmetics under the brand name Delilah and wields a mean pair of scissors. Reve uses a half-hearted sexual affair with Christina as a way of getting to his real interest—the younger man in her life, with whom he had an eerily coincidental encounter in a train station days earlier. Gradually, circumstances lead Reve to believe that Christina engineered the gruesome deaths of her first three husbands, and that his dreams and hallucinations are a kind of warning signal. Will he act on them in time to save a life?
Paul Verhoeven, after Turkish Delight, Kathy Tippel, Soldier of Orange and Spetters, found in Reve’s work a near-perfect mix of the cinematic ideas and images that stimulate him most: the dark side of eroticism, the joy of casual nudity, the richness of religious imagery, the Catholic tension between woman-worship and misogyny, the omnipresence of death, the grip of horror and the fantastic on the ordered human mind, the thriller genre as a frame for the collision of seriousness with satire.
This would be Verhoeven’s last Dutch film until his triumphant return to Dutch cinema with his longtime dream project Black Book in 2006. In between, he directed a string of visually libertine and darkly satirical cinematic adventures: Flesh + Blood, Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers, and Hollow Man, earning equally passionate defenders and detractors along the way. The Fourth Man remains his richest, most provocative and most problematic film. In 1984, it was visually delicious, emotionally numbing, and intellectually baffling. Revisited several times over the past quarter century, the film has never dropped in my esteem, though it continues to give me the sneaking suspicion that both Verhoeven and Reve are having a bit of fun, and ultimately offering a lot less than meets the eye.
Verhoeven and producer Rob Houwer assembled a dream team for The Fourth Man: hot-blooded Jeroen Krabbé as the manic Reve, coolly and frankly sexual Renee Soutendijk as the object of his experiment with heterosexuality and his growing paranoid suspicions, the brilliant Jan de Bont behind the camera, incisive scenarist Gerard Soeteman and powerful composer Loek Dikker. They’re all at their over-the-top best in this little masterpiece of eye-popping imagery.
In the film, Verhoeven managed to find a cinematic correlate to Reve’s introspective, hallucinatory prose—so much so that one suspects an epochal planetary alignment of Reve the poet, Reve the character, Soeteman the writer, Verhoeven the director, and Krabbé the actor. Certainly each one in that string of estimable talents might say, as Reve does, “I lie the truth.” Writer, cineaste and actor all take true events and distort them into fiction, where they reshape themselves into symbolic but palpably real representations of higher truths.
How is the ability to synthesize one’s hallucinations into art different from madness, if it is? Where does the ordered symbology of the writer’s perception of the world break down into the disordered tyranny of irrational conviction and uncontrollable emotion? By the climax, the agitated, overly suggestible Reve can no longer tell reality from imagery from ideas. Nor can we, and the point may be that it no longer matters.
Robert C. Cumbow is the author of books on John Carpenter and Sergio Leone. Several essays he originated on 24 Lies a Second were reintroduced and archived on The House Next Door. His home base is the Seattle film blog, The Parallax View.