- 4 movie (2004) review: In his feature film debut, Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky dares audiences to stay in their seats watching his overlong, meandering, fragmented, resolutely drab cinematic narrative about … what exactly?
4 (movie 2004) review: Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s overlong, uncompromisingly grim feature debut is a cinematic trial
Directed by feature film newcomer Ilya Khrzhanovsky, the relentlessly bleak Russian drama 4 starts with a bang and ends with a longwinded … what exactly?
In this instance, the word “bang” is to be taken literally. Khrzhanovsky’s 4 movie begins with four dogs lying about on a cold, empty, dark street. In a few moments, their peace is disturbed by the loud noise of an approaching vehicle. We know something is about to happen. That’s when four mechanical legs start pounding on the pavement; their deafening din forcing the dogs to scurry away.
This reviewer wishes he had scurried along with them, as the film’s ensuing two hours consist of drab, seemingly endless, and ultimately pointless scenes devoid of either substance or aesthetic appeal.
4 movie plot
According to Ilya Khrzhanovsky, 4 was inspired by certain musical compositions, the paintings of Goya and other artists, and the works of filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and Andrei Tarkovsky.
But unlike Goya or Tarkovsky, Khrzhanovsky fails to create a canvas that – at least in theory – could have added resonance to the film’s fragmented narrative and the hollow verbal exchanges among its characters.
At first, 4’s non-plot – credited to Vladimir Sorokin – revolves around three people who meet by chance at a bar: A sex worker (Marina Vovchenko), a meat packer (Yuri Laguta), and a piano tuner (Sergei Shnurov). While the bartender (individual no. 4) dozes off, the pathetic trio comes up with lies about their professional backgrounds.
The sex worker pretends to be a marketing representative for a Japanese company. The meat packer claims that he delivers bottled water to Vladimir Putin. The piano tuner rattles on about his work with human cloning, affirming that thousands of clones make Russia their home.
Once the rambling conversation ends, the two men all but disappear from the film. At that point, the “narrative” veers toward the young woman, who travels to a remote village for the burial of one of her sisters.
And there 4 is buried as well, as it becomes so coarsely abstract that Khrzhanovsky and Sorokin seem to be daring viewers to remain in their seats.
The significance of the number 4
Admittedly, at times – as in the drunken bar chat scene – the filmmakers seem to be trying to impart 4 with a modicum of significance. Yet all that talk about marketing, cloning, and bottled water goes nowhere.
And although the number 4 – supposed to be the ideal number for the world’s equilibrium – is prominently featured in several sequences, at this stage of his career Khrzhanovsky lacks the artistic eye of a Peter Greenaway to make his stylized camera set-ups either memorable or meaningful.
Hence, the four barking dogs, the four people at the bar, the four stuffed dolls, and the four Russian planes taking soldiers to war (a segment reminiscent of Milos Forman’s Hair) come across as nothing more than futile symbolism. (But let’s not consign to oblivion that it took four years – and lots of perseverance – to get 4 made, as money kept running out.)
Now, what’s up with those five naughty elderly peasant women?
4 / Chetyre (movie 2004) cast & crew
Director: Ilya Khrzhanovsky.
Screenplay: Vladimir Sorokin.
Cast: Yuri Laguta. Sergei Shnurov. Marina Vovchenko. Konstantin Murzenko. Andrei Kudriashov.
“4 (Movie 2004)” notes
Russian censorship threat
 Whether because of the reference to Russia’s authoritarian leader Vladimir Putin as a bottled-water drinker, or because Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s 4 movie is so uncompromisingly dour, Russian authorities reportedly wanted to cut 40 minutes from the film.
Following 4’s Rotterdam Film Festival and Seattle Film Festival wins, the censors have apparently relented. The film is scheduled to be released uncut in Russia in the fall.
Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s 4 reviewed at the LA Film Festival (website).
4 movie image: Filmocom | Hubert Bals Fund.
“4 (Movie 2004): Relentlessly Bleak Journey Into…?” last updated in April 2023.