Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s 4 is miraculously getting a U.S. release, and while I can’t imagine it’s going to shake up the New York art house scene (where Bruno Dumont and Tsai Ming-liang disappear like a fart in the wind and George Clooney’s latest is considered by New Yorker folk as a pencil-to-mouth thought-provoker), it will certainly shake up anyone who sees it. You’ve been warned, don’t miss out.
So grotesque and unpredictable as to border on the phantasmagoric, 4 is obviously, thoroughly Russian, and certainly might alienate many viewers used to more social realist depictions of contemporary life. 4 shuttles disorientingly from an urban space to the rural, yet each terrain is equally threatening and unable to fully engage with its inhabitants. The film begins with a chance meeting between three strangers who make up stories about their lives to elevate themselves beyond their suffocating existences: a prostitute says she’s an advertising exec, a meat-manufacturer says he has ties to the Kremlin (via quite mundane circumstances, however), and finally, and most narrative-rupturing, a piano tuner claims to be a bioengineer who has been overseeing human cloning, which he swears has been a fact of Russian science since the late forties. After their lengthy tales, each goes his or her separate way. Khrzhanovsky then follows them on their increasingly odd, inexplicable journeys, most impressively, the prostitute’s travels back to her impoverished village, which is populated by a group of rotting, haggard, old women who create dolls out of chewed bread.
4 may be less concerned with narrative than keeping its audience’s brows furrowed, but Khrzhanovsky shuttles us back and forth between spaces and emotions with such precise meter and rhythm that time seems to simply stand still. It’s impossible to completely regain your supremacy over the narrative after the initial meet-cute between the three principals, which promises a narrative of economy and linearity; once that dissolves, you’re at the behest of Ilya Khrzhanovsky and his brilliant scenarist and writer Vladimir Sorokin, who has an enfant terrible reputation in Russia due to his insistently abstract works, and they’re not about the let you off easy.
The film is more about repetition and memory recall than straight lines: pig carcasses, impromptu bacchanalias, vodka guzzled with vomitous frequency. Desolate and urgent, 4 needs further consideration to wade through its filth and to fully comprehend its portrait of contemporary socioeconomic decay. Expect more from Reverse Shot in coming weeks on this film.