It's a commonly held belief that Paul Verhoeven's Dutch language work is better than his later Hollywood efforts. It's certainly easy to misconstrue things in this regard, if we take Showgirls or Hollow Man as a yardstick against the likes of Spetters and Soldier of Orange. But perhaps the most illuminating comparison is with The Fourth Man, a 'spiritual prequel' to Basic Instinct which edges out over its State-side companion in almost every way.
Mark Kermode in his review of Black Book described The Fourth Man as "a trial run for Basic Instinct", and he wasn't far wide of the mark. Both films, loosely speaking, have the same plot: a maverick male protagonist falls in love with a dangerous woman, whom it transpires is a serial murderer of the people she loves. Both the femme fatales in question are blonde, both employ sharp objects (whether scissors or an ice pick), and both exhibit sociopathic tendencies. There are some differences - the man and woman's occupation, the setting, the overall style - but you could connect the character arcs together without much hassle.
Both films are also discernably made by the same man. They are indulgent, upfront if not celebratory of nudity, unabashed about their subject matter and have some degree of religious subtext or symbolism. The crucial difference, however, is one of emphasis. Basic Instinct emphasises the teasing, destructive nature of its heroine: it's centrally an erotic thriller, with the man being unable to help himself against strong feminine wiles. The Fourth Man, on the other hand, emphasises the mental disintegration of its male protagonist. It's a psychological horror in the vein of Angel Heart, with one foot in the history of film noir.
Both of the film's main protagonists are deeply rooted in film noir and by extension pulp fiction. Gerard Reve is a trashy novelist, unkempt in appearance and with an unhealthy taste for drink. His hair is greasy, his clothing shabby and he doesn't really care what anybody thinks of him so long as he can do his job. He serves as the unreliable narrator in the absence of a detective character, while Christine is our femme fatale, equal parts victim and villain, and completely irresistible to our hero.
But rather than just lean on these archetypes for the sake of pulpy fun, Verhoeven looks at these conventions in a more advanced and naturalistic way. He could just set up Reve as an unreliable narrator with a grim voiceover and lots of slow shots of him drinking, writing and moping on trains. Instead we get Reve's lecture, in which he spins his audience a yarn and then reveals how much is real and how much is his fabrication. His wry comment that he "lies the truth" sets up both his archetype and much of the film's ambiguity, and all the while the story feels distinctive.
Having given us this ambiguity, Verhoeven launches into a full-blown examination of religious paranoia. When interviewed in 2011, he argued that Christian belief and practice has a tendency to resemble black magic and the occult. Christians, he argued, were so obsessed with "scrambling to rationalise their chaotic existence" that their behaviour was akin to schizophrenia, and he wanted to play with the idea of religion being grounded in violence (e.g. the crucifixion).
Whether you agree with Verhoeven's viewpoint or not (I'm firmly in the latter camp), the notion does make for a very effective thriller. It raises all manner of interesting questions about fate, predestination, evil and temptation, while also having fun playing with familiar symbols and indulging in a little surrealism. The comparison with Angel Heart is a fitting one, since both are unapologetic in their heady and intoxicating imagery, with theological accuracy taking a back seat to ambiguity and primal fear.
First and foremost, the film plays with the old idea of religion being a coping mechanism for people who fear death. Like Gene Hackman's character in The Conversation, Reve is a lapsed Catholic who clings onto certain symbols and images (mainly the Virgin Mary) out of morbid fear for his wellbeing and sanity. He is perfectly happy to drink, swear, and sleep with men and women without a second thought, but the second that his life is threatened, he becomes a quivering wreck. His faith is being crushed or overshadowed by a more powerful evil, slowly covering everything, like the spider's web on the crucifix in the opening shot.
Because Reve's mindset is so carefree and unstable, The Fourth Man gives us very little to ground us in one particularly version of events. Reve's visions are incredibly vivid and surreal, but there is no break in visual aesthetic to differentiate a dream from reality, like in Spellbound or The Conversation. Not only can we not trust our protagonist, but we cannot rely on our own senses to guide us, and that makes the experience all the more terrifying.
This also allows the film to succeed where Basic Instinct ultimately fell short, in making its female antagonist genuinely ambiguous. There was never really any doubt that Catherine Tramell was the killer; all her more sensitive scenes and the implication of Beth were just an ineffective smokescreen.
Here, on the other hand, we find ourselves genuinely in doubt about Christine. Is she a ruthless murderess, or a broken victim? The film is replete with recurring images which suggest her wicked nature - spiders being the most effective example - and yet we find ourselves dismissing them as our own paranoia even as evil surrounds us. Even when Reve discovers the tapes of her other husbands, in a gender reversal of Peeping Tom, we cannot completely trust Reve and therefore remain in two minds.
One of the big themes of The Fourth Man is predestination. Verhoeven has a great deal of fun foreshadowing the deaths of his characters, the most gruesome being Herman's death in the car accident. There's a fair amount of graphic violence, including a scene involving scissors which gives Hard Candy a run for its money. But Verhoeven does do the hard work in giving the violence meaning, driving home the abiding threat of Christine and making us question to what extent such events were unavoidable.
Much like Don't Look Now (another film that explored predestination), The Fourth Man's colour palette is dominated by red. Jan de Bont's directorial career may have left a lot to be desired, but he remains one of the best cinematographers ever to come out of continental Europe. The film is brilliantly shot with a huge variety of shades and textures being captured, from the smooth sheen of Christine's lipstick to the thick matte blood on the victims' bodies.
There are a couple of problems with The Fourth Man. It is deeply contrived, which is in one sense inevitable: there is so much predestination and foreshadowing that it will take a lot of suspension of disbelief for the plot to work without question. There is also the issue of animal cruelty regarding the opening credits, which feature a spider crawling along a web and devouring flies. Assuming that the spider was trained in some way, to achieve the size and shape of web needed for a given shot, it is rather uncomfortable to watch a real-life killing on screen.
The Fourth Man is a gripping and thought-provoking thriller which finds Verhoeven in sound mind while having a lot of fun. Its vivid cinematography and nuanced examination of ideas are balanced by a witty script and great performances by Jeroen Krabbé and Renée Soutendijk. Verhoeven's best work remains Soldier of Orange, but this is still a very fine film, which offers brains on top of its frequent flesh.