4 movie is a cinematic chore
Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s relentlessly bleak feature film debut, 4, starts with a bang and ends with a painfully longwinded whimper. Here, I’m using the word “bang” literally, for the film begins with four dogs lying about on a cold, empty, dark street. The loud noise of an approaching vehicle disturbs the dogs’ peace, as they become increasingly edgy. Something is going to happen. Suddenly, four mechanical legs start a deafening pounding on the pavement, forcing the dogs to scurry away. In all honesty, this reviewer wishes he’d fled along with them, for the film’s next two hours are filled with endless, self-indulgent, and ultimately pointless scenes devoid of either substance or aesthetic value.
According to Khrzhanovsky, 4 was inspired by certain musical compositions, the paintings of Goya and other artists, and the films of art-house directors such as Jean-Luc Godard and Andrei Tarkovsky. Unfortunately, unlike Goya or Tarkovsky, Khrzhanovsky fails to create a visual canvas that would add resonance to the hollow verbal exchanges between characters and to the film’s meandering narrative. (That is, if one can refer to the aimless series of sequences that comprise 4 as “narrative.”)
4 movie plot
Initially, the non-plot (by Khrzhanovsky and Vladimir Sorokin) revolves around three people who meet by chance at a bar: a prostitute (Marina Vovchenko), a meat packer (Yuri Laguta), and a piano tuner (Sergei Shnurov). While the bartender dozes off, the sad trio comes up with lies about their professional backgrounds.
The call girl pretends to be a marketing representative for a Japanese company; the meat packer claims that he delivers bottled water to Vladimir Putin, no less; and the piano tuner rattles on about his work with human cloning, claiming that thousands of clones make Russia their home.
Once the rambling conversation ends, the two men basically disappear from the film. At that point, the “story” focuses on the young woman, who travels to a remote village for the burial of one of her sisters. And there the movie dies as well, as 4 becomes so coarsely abstract that Khrzhanovsky seems to be daring his audience to stay in their seats one minute longer.
The significance of the number 4
Admittedly, at times Khrzhanovsky attempts to impart his film with a modicum of significance, but drunken bar chats about identity changes or the magical quality of the number 4 – supposedly the ideal number for the world’s equilibrium – are left undeveloped. For although the number 4 is prominently featured in a number of scenes – e.g., the bar sequence, the four barking dogs, four Russian planes taking soldiers to war (a sequence reminiscent of Milos Forman’s Hair), four creepy stuffed dolls (in addition to four years to get 4 made, as money kept running out) – Khrzhanovsky, at least at this stage of his career, lacks that artistic eye of a Peter Greenaway to make his stylized camera set-ups either interesting or meaningful.
Now, what’s up with those five naughty, elderly peasant women?
A curiosity: Whether because of the reference to dictator-in-the-making Putin being a bottled-water drinker or because 4 is so relentlessly bleak, Russian authorities supposedly wanted to cut 40 minutes from the film. But after 4‘s Rotterdam Film Festival and Seattle Film Festival wins, the censors have apparently relented. 4 is scheduled to be released uncut in Russia in the fall.
Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s 4 reviewed at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Dec. 2005 addendum: For his work on 4, Ilya Khrzhanovsky was nominated for the European Film Academy Discovery Award, the Prix Fassbinder. Khrzhanovsky ultimately lost to Jakob Thuesen for Accused.
4 / Chetyre (2005). Dir.: Ilya Khrzhanovsky. Scr.: Vladimir Sorokin and Ilya Khrzhanovsky. Cast: Yuri Laguta, Sergei Shnurov, Marina Vovchenko.
Ilya khrzhanovsky’s 4 picture: Los Angeles Film Festival.