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Connect the Dots: 4 on Ilya Khrzhanovsky's "4"

By Indiewire | Indiewire April 3, 2006 at 10:07AM

Like trying to comprehend that you just got punched in the gut, watching Ilya Khrzhanovsky's "4" requires that you live with it for a while in order to let the feeling sink in. This film does not imitate life, it creates it --- it lives and breathes a little different from anything you've seen before, and yet the result is somehow painfully recognizable. By turns profound and profane, "4" will make you want to cry and vomit, sometimes at the same time and always with equal parts intellect and reflex. Khrzhanovsky's film demands nothing less than a genuine confrontation with what it means to be a human in an inhumane world, which is what makes its fascinating filthiness necessary.
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Like trying to comprehend that you just got punched in the gut, watching Ilya Khrzhanovsky's "4" requires that you live with it for a while in order to let the feeling sink in. This film does not imitate life, it creates it --- it lives and breathes a little different from anything you've seen before, and yet the result is somehow painfully recognizable. By turns profound and profane, "4" will make you want to cry and vomit, sometimes at the same time and always with equal parts intellect and reflex. Khrzhanovsky's film demands nothing less than a genuine confrontation with what it means to be a human in an inhumane world, which is what makes its fascinating filthiness necessary.

Like trying to comprehend that you just got punched in the gut, watching Ilya Khrzhanovsky's "4" requires that you live with it for a while in order to let the feeling sink in. This film does not imitate life, it creates it --- it lives and breathes a little different from anything you've seen before, and yet the result is somehow painfully recognizable. By turns profound and profane, "4" will make you want to cry and vomit, sometimes at the same time and always with equal parts intellect and reflex. Khrzhanovsky's film demands nothing less than a genuine confrontation with what it means to be a human in an inhumane world, which is what makes its fascinating filthiness necessary.

The film's meaning is universal, but it's firmly, deeply set in contemporary Russia. The first half takes place in a Moscow populated by a prostitute (Marina Vovchenko), a piano tuner (Sergey Shnurov), a meat vendor (Yuri Laguta), and hoards of stray dogs. The latter appear intermittently to scavenge and yelp, giving voice to the hurt and helplessness that pervades the film, but which is rarely articulated by those with the power of speech. The prostitute, the piano tuner, and the meat vendor meet in a bar late one night to indulge in fantasy: the meat vendor claims to work for the Kremlin, the prostitute claims to work in advertising, and the piano tuner claims to be a genetic engineer. "May everyone live in accord with his place on earth," the piano tuner says, clinking glasses with the meat vendor and the prostitute. "Good toast," says the meat vendor.

The piano tuner and the meat vendor each see through the other, if only because they're both trying to pick up the prostitute, Marina, an inveterate liar too invested in her own fantasy to catch on. The second half of the film belongs to Marina, as it follows her back to the provincial village of her birth after she receives news of her sister's sudden death. A muddy, barren landscape pocked by huts that appear uninhabitable quickly undermines any hope that Marina's flight from urban alienation might be an escape to a bucolic countryside.

Instead of pastoral, the film turns phantasmagoric. Crones endlessly wailing and masticating like animals swill moonshine until the memorial dinner becomes a drunken orgy, where lewd things are done to dolls made of old rags and chewed bread, and human beings, devouring a pig carcass like wild dogs, are made wholly confounding, jarringly uncivilized, even unsympathetic. The nightmarish degradation that ensues in shaky, soft focus and halting close-ups makes Marina's lonely life of sexual exploitation in Moscow seem dignified in comparison to this infantile, incomprehensible hell. The film is dominated by images of hands with dirty fingernails tearing at food and forcing it into mouths, accompanied by sounds of bones crunching and saliva squirting so stomach-turning that the screen seems to emanate a stench. This is consumption at its most sickening and furthest removed from the spoils of industrial capitalism, a coincidence the film dares you to untangle for yourself.

Back in Moscow, the piano tuner's insistence that people are the masters of their own destinies was reassuring, but by the end of the film this faith in freewill loses ground. All three characters' lives are diverted over the course of the film, suggesting that the piano tuner's toast to life lived in accordance with its rightful place might actually be a curse. After all, those most sure of their place in the world are dogs, while the rest of us must live with the uncertainty of purpose that is human.

[Lauren Kaminsky is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

A scene from Ilya Khrzhanovsky's "4." Image courtesy of the filmmaker.

Take 2
by Michael Joshua Rowin

You think you've seen it all, you're confident you've encountered every stripe of the art cinema rainbow, and then something like "4" comes along and announces an entirely singular, indescribable spectrum of filmmaking. Filmmaking as anarchy, perhaps? A definite feeling of chaos and liberty accompanies the act of following and attempting to tie together the strands from which Ilya Khrzhanovsky composes this celluloid nightmare: dramatic emphasis is accorded to one storyline over the others, particular scenes plunge into unpredictable bacchanals, and the black shucks that ubiquitously haunt throughout (and which are often followed by ominous snow plows) portend bursts of random destruction and carnage. If films are built on moments, there's not a single instance of "4" where you know where you're headed or why.

But it's all part of a grand, if not entirely explicable, design. In "4"'s eschatology, "the power of hell," the anarchy of existence, lies behind absurd daily fictions, as much a part of visible city life as it is in hidden, industry-scarred Russian countryside. Nothing new--that's the modus operandi of horror and film noir, after all, but Khrzhanovsky is working in quasi-surrealist mode, condensing and displacing motifs (the uncanny nature of doubling being the film's guiding principle) as in a claustrophobic fever dream. The unmoored sense of journey and environment extends to the film's kinetic close-up shots of grotesque and pained human countenances and freakish Sabbath of the musique concrete soundtrack, both thrillingly employed during Marina's journey to her village of bread-chewing, doll-producing crones.

What's it all mean? "4" obviously intends to be watched repeatedly in order to extricate its secrets. On a purely visceral level, though, its anarchic adventurousness and oneiric inner workings realize one character's existentialist supposition that everything is already what it is except for humans, who can become whatever, whenever. That's also the grandeur of a film as audaciously feral as "4."

[Michael Joshua Rowin is a staff writer at Reverse Shot. He also writes for L magazine, Stop Smiling, and runs the blog Hopeless Abandon.]


Take 3
by Jeff Reichert

It's a bold gambit to dive into your first feature via an alternately involving and alienating 30-minute late night bar chat between three strangers in which each of the participants spin elaborate lies about their lives wholly debunked by the preceding prologue. And then, in a move that's Carlos Reygadas-bold, Khrzanovsky uses the slippages between known truths and falsehoods contained within this inciting chat as the conceptual underpinning from which to launch into the next three quarters of his movie. But damned if Ilya Khrzanovsky doesn't pull it off in "4"-- so much so that it's near impossible to shake off this scene (and its references to clones, shadowy government conspiracies, and technology) even as the film subsequently mires itself in the dirt and muck of a rural Russian village.

Such is the hypnotic power of that scene that their words continue to resonate over the rest of the work, and Khrzanovsky cleverly feints at proving their falsehoods true but never answers questions, never ties up ends, preferring instead to leave us grasping at nothing. This isn't a bad thing. Rather, all this teasing lends the work a conceptual air-tightness that solidifies and deepens respect for the director's risk--this isn't P.T. Anderson portentously slapping 8:2 in every frame of "Magnolia." Instead we're being actively led around by the nose so that it's not until the final moments that we've realized that Khrzanovsky has used all the sci-fi ballyhoo as cover for a movie that's really more interested in mundane things like contemporary Russian life, both in the cities and out, people struggling to exist on the margins, and a society that seems to barely function under the crippling weight of history, which in itself isn't a bad metaphor for the construction of "4" as a whole.

[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed by Magnolia Pictures.]

Take 4
by Michael Koresky

I wish I could provide some sort of strong counterpoint for the sake of this roundelay, yet to play devil's advocate against something as singular and profoundly effective as "4" would be a crime against the art form I love so much. Ilya Khrzhanovsky's "4" so utterly forthright in its own odd vision that many writers will have to resort to cliches to deal with its delirious narrative strands and eyebrow-furrowing sights: get ready for the less imaginative writers call out "mind-bending" or "head-trip" to try and generate some sort of generic fallback.

A scene from Ilya Khrzhanovsky's "4." Image courtesy of the filmmaker.

Yet what Khrzhanovsky achieves is far too subtly discursive to be marked as freeform. The opening half-hour, a gorgeously lit and evocatively drab barroom meeting of the film's ostensible three protagonists, portends linearity. Each one claims to be something they are not (we know because brief prologues showed their actual professions: a meat plant vendor, a piano tuner, and a prostitute), in long, absurd monologues, and then they go their separate ways, as it turns out, never to meet again. Then the film tendrils out without recourse to narrative convention--but, oddly, always to common sense. Alienation is, frankly, a way of life, and Khrzhanovsky has seemingly devoted an entire film to the closeness of alienation, both self-made and from outside forces. The city is a drab, manufacturing site; the country, hardly an escape, is a garish swine trough. Interiors and exteriors are equally austere, familial connections (both in the domestic lives of the prostitute and the meat vendor) are unrecognizable and grotesque. But if as viewers we lose sight of those moments of clarity in between the inexplicable anarchy, then all is lost. "4" is confounding, yet also clear as crystal: the more you try to get where you're going, the more you're sidetracked; the more you try to make sense of the world, the less sense it makes. And of course, there is only one inevitability.

[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, a contributor of Film Comment and Interview, and the managing editor at The Criterion Collection.]

This article is related to: World Cinema







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