Paul Verhoeven is the great American satirist. There’s only the small matter of him being Dutch. In his 80s & 90s Hollywood heyday, Verhoeven was the master of self-satirizing American pop culture, riding a fine enough line between moralist condemnation and gleeful participation that his cartoon parodies of Hollywood schlock were often mistaken for the genuine thing. Titles like Showgirls, Starship Troopers, and Robocop were often overlooked as biting American satires in their time, mostly because Verhoeven was obviously taking perverse pleasure in the exact sex & violence he was chastising mainstream audiences for craving. He was making truly subversive art, in that he was subverting the meaning & intent of his oblivious Hollywood collaborators with a self-satirical exaggeration of the industry’s cruelest, most salacious smut. His mainstream films were, without hyperbole, among the greatest ever made and, as such, were often misunderstood by critics & audiences in their own time.
You did not need me to repeat that tidbit of recent pop culture history. Verhoeven’s subversive Hollywood works have been reassessed to the point where their covert satirical genius is now common knowledge (even if that cultural reassessment hasn’t translated to more robust budgets for his more recent, small studio works like Benedetta & Elle). What’s less often discussed—among American audiences anyway—is what Verhoeven was up to before he reached Hollywood, as his early Dutch features currently have no legal distribution in the US. If his semi-supernatural erotic thriller The 4th Man is any indication, Verhoeven arrived here as an already fully formed auteur, since the film essentially functions as a Basic Instinct prototype (with some light touches of Benedetta for added flavor). And if The 4th Man is not typical to the movies Verhoeven was making pre-Hollywood, you’ll have to forgive me for the assumption. I only got to see this one because a friend bought a bootleg DVD copy off of eBay; the rest remain a mystery.
Jeroen Krabbé stars as a hotshot alcoholic novelist who travels to a small town to big-time his fan club at a public reading of his work. He quickly falls in lust & bedsheets with the literary club’s treasurer, Renée Soutendijk, an obvious femme fatale who will quickly lead to the buffoonish author’s doom. He suffers bad-omen visions of his own death throughout his travels, but powers through them for the promise of hot sex, both with Soutendijk and with her younger boytoy lover, Thom Hoffman. Unlike in Basic Instinct, it isn’t the ice-cold blonde bombshell who’s a bisexual hedonist, but rather the himbo-dingus who trips all over himself lusting after her (and her accessibility to hot trade). Exactly like in Basic Instinct, whether that bombshell is a murderer or a sexually liberated innocent is a Schrodinger’s box game that Verhoeven teases the audience with all the way through the end credits. Only, this version of the story follows a different genre template, going for more of a small-town-witchcraft Wicker Man vibe instead of foretelling Basic Instinct’s cop-falls-for-murder-suspect neo noir revival.
Verhoeven’s meta-satirical exaggerations of Joe Eszterhas’s sleazy Hollywood scripts are artistically subversive. With no major-studio industrial tropes or morals to subvert, The 4th Man is, by contrast, simply artistically blasphemous. Verhoeven’s Dutch dry-run/wet-dream precursor to Basic Instinct is just as hyperviolent and explicitly horny as his later Hollywood films, but outside of the Hollywood system its shock-value offenses register more as a personal indulgence than an act of cultural satire. When Krabbé envisions Hoffman’s heaving, sweaty gym body rocking a tight red Speedo on the crucifix, Verhoeven is not exactly subverting cultural or religious norms. He is perverting them for his own amusement. When Soutendijk’s witchy femme fatale leads her boytoys to their ruin by the prick—sometimes snipping those pricks off entirely in castration nightmare sequences—Verhoeven is not subverting misogynist Hollywood tropes about women’s poisonous effect on men; he’s celebrating her transgressive power. The closest he comes to true subversion in The 4th Man is in an early sex scene, when Krabbé covers Soutendijk’s breasts to pretend she is “a boy”, thrusting into him, flipping the power dynamics of the traditional nude scene into something overtly queer. Even then, it still feels like he’s only doing so to delight himself and to shock the audience, not necessarily to declare something political about sex in cinema.
If there’s any way that Verhoeven doesn’t feel like a fully formed auteur in The 4th Man, it’s in the film’s similarities to Euro cinema of its era, from the bitter romantic doom of Barbet Schroeder’s Maîtresse to the intense reds & witchy dream imagery of supernatural gialli (complete with an echo of Fulci’s signature ocular gore). He couldn’t reach his full power as a subversive pop culture satirist until he left Europe for America, where his blasphemous indulgences in sex & violence could punch upwards at Puritanical social norms instead of just delighting the man behind the camera. The 4th Man‘s greatest asset, then, might be cinematographer (and longtime Verhoeven collaborator) Jan De Bont, who stretches the budget with as many on-the-fly crane, zoom, dolly shots as he can manage to match the look & feel of mainstream Hollywood filmmaking. Judging only by The 4th Man, it’s clear that Verhoeven was already making great films before he reached America; all that really changed was finding a cultural context that made them feel politically dangerous instead of just deliciously perverse.