This post was originally lost in the Great Server Crash of 2010; the article was partially recovered from Google cache, and the rest of the text was recreated from memory. Sorry, original comments were irretrievably lost in cyberspace.
DIRECTED BY: Ilya Khrjanovsky
FEATURING: Marina Vovchenko, Yuri Laguta, Sergey Shnurov
PLOT: Three Moscow strangers meet at a bar and tell tall-tales, and then we follow what
happens to each of them after they leave.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s weird, indubitably. The problem with this cold, wandering drama is that very few viewers will have patience with its molasses pace and murky symbolism; it’s slow without being hypnotic, and mystifying without being mysterious. It’s difficult to reject out-of-hand a film with high critical marks, excellent technique, and definite weirdness, but 4 seems too dry and directionless to resonate with many non-Russians.
COMMENTS: The shadow of Tarkovsky must still cast over the shoulder of every weird Russian filmmaker, just as the legacy of Lynch haunts their American counterparts. The master’s influence can be seen throughout 4 in the lovely, leisurely treks through misty tundra; heard in the sound collages mixing mutated railroad clicks and hisses with synths and the baying of far off hounds; and felt in the appropriation of one of Tarkovsky’s favorite symbols, the dog. The dogs who prowl the rubble of 4‘s Moscow streets and chew up villager’s livelihoods are not the loyal, mystical, otherworldly observers of Stalker and Nostalghia, however; they are remnants of social upheaval and agents of chaos. With it’s Kafkaesque moments, portentous dialogues, mutant piglets and nightmare crones, incidents of Khrjanovsky’s feature debut conjure up a gloomy mystery that would have fit comfortably into a Tarkovsky film; but unlike its inspirations, it lacks much of a story, is missing an undercurrent of hope that cuts the despair, and has no emotional core. The film likely reflects the mood of early capitalist Russia, circa 2005: ashamed of the past, already weary of the present, and fearful of the future. Maybe the fact that the movie captures the latest iteration of Russian melancholy so perfectly is what makes it difficult to watch, and harder to love. As the story begins we follow three contemporary Muscovites: a meat packer, a prostitute, and a musician. They meet in a bar late at night and tell each other a series of escalating tall tales, ending with a claim by the meat packer that he has helped oversee Soviet cloning experiments, and that the clones walk among us. After their extremely long, attention-taxing dialogue which plays out over several cocktails, the threesome parts; we follow each of their separate stories—in theory. In practice, the story of prostitute Marina Vovchenko returning to her boozy country village for a funeral takes up far more time than the others. Vovchenko’s frequently nude body is stunning—a true miracle of nature—but the countryside is nightmarish. The economy of the isolated village was built around the production of folksy dolls. The townsfolk have a crude secret for giving their dolls a singularly realistic texture and appearance: the skin is made partly from half-masticated bread. The dead woman was the only one in the hamlet who could fashion lifelike faces, and the entire fate of the village now seems to be in the hands of Marat, her bereaved spouse, who must figure out a way to revitalize the doll-based economy. Other than the prostitute and three other beautiful busty females returning home for the funeral, he is the only young person in the village, and the only male. The rest of the hamlet is made up of old crones whose only talent is chewing bread, and whose main interest is in drinking liters of vodka every night and acting like Hags Gone Wild, St. Petersburg edition. They slobber, compare sagging breasts, engage in food fights, and make obscene pantomimes with the dolls, night after night. Vovchenko seems trapped there, unable to leave, and there’s a nightmarish aspect to the nightly bacchanalia: it’s Gummo in the dacha. In Russian iconography, old women are typically revered as the custodians of the culture, so to see them depicted this way suggests the filmmakers see Russia’s past as no more attractive than the cold, soulless present where stray dogs wander streets that are randomly pounded to rubble by giant pistons. The funeral excursion is by far the most interesting of the segments (the other two involve an absurd interrogation and a melancholy home life). But the extraordinary focus on the prostitute’s third of the tale makes the story feel strangely unbalanced—even sloppily planned—and as effectively bizarre as the drunken escapades are, they quickly become repetitive. 4 is worth a look for the patient and those who thrill to the pageantry of perverse geriatric peasantry, but it will probably resonate more to Russophiles (and Russophobes) than to the average viewer.
Look for items grouped in quartets—people, cars, round mutant piglets—which are scattered throughout the movies like clues (but clues to what? One of the characters tells us that four is one of the few numbers with no numerological significance to any culture—though he’s wrong about that). The script is by Russian cult novelist Vladimir Sorokin. Ilya Khrjanovsky is the son of famous Russian animator Andrei Khrjanovsky.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…seriously weird pic has a few flat stretches, but its bawdy comedy, bravura sound design and uncanny atmosphere will turn on auds with a taste for deeply oddball fare and baffle others.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (Venice Film Festival)