“Bizarre Russian shaggy-dog story of cloned girls, chewed bread and orgies among the aged.”
The above quote appeared in the September 2005 edition of Sight and Sound, both describing and recommending 4 in time for its appearance at that year’s Edinburgh Film Festival. Taken in this light it makes Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s feature debut at the very least worth a look, seemingly hinting at a true one-off. And certainly 4 is most definitely not quite like anything you’ve seen before even as it regularly recalls other filmmakers. But then uniqueness doesn’t necessarily equate to quality.
Proceedings kick off well enough with a scene determined to grab our attention. Under a cacophony of industrial-type noise of undetermined origin, a group of days lays about only to be disturbed, quite dramatically, by the sudden invasion of a fleet of roadworks machinery. Quite why an occurrence has taken place is never satisfactorily explained, yet the scene is important for what it tells us about the film as a whole. Clearly Khrzhanovsky has little interest in such trivial matters as dramatic progression or motivation, though he does place some serious import on the audio-visual side of things. Indeed, in terms of its sound designs and use of location Khrzhanovsky at the very least perks our interest. The problem is that they amount to little of significance when languishing about in a two-hour-plus feature which has little understanding of quite what it wishes to say or do.
In narrative terms (though I use this description lightly) 4 begins when a trio of characters enter a bar. One is a seller of meats, another is a piano tuner, and the only woman present is a young prostitute. Together they swap chit-chat and banter which goes exactly nowhere even as it touches on some interesting themes: UFOs, the Kremlin, human cloning and stress relief. In fact, most of the dialogue is revealed to be lies and so after this sequence is over (one which has effectively occupied a full quarter of the film’s duration), 4 is required to start all over again. The meat seller heads off to look at some round piglets and share some banal scenes with his onscreen father. The piano tuner goes to a rave and is later arrested fro some undisclosed reason. And the prostitute discovers that her sister (the two form one half of quadruplets) has died and so goes to her village to attend the funeral. Yet the village is as strange as everything else in Khrzhanovsky’s world, populated as it is almost solely by old women who make anatomically correct dolls from chewed bread.
Of course, you can’t deny the weirdness of all of this (and there’s much more which has gone unmentioned), but there’s never any clear sense of how we’re supposed to react. 4 is a film so full of wilfulness and digressions, mysteries and repetitions, not to mention gnomic, portentous dialogue, that it’s impossible to connect with it in any kind of narrative sense. Indeed, it makes you question whether Khrzhanovsky himself understood Vladimir Sorokin’s script even as he gains a co-story credit. Perhaps the director sees the whole film as nothing more than an elaborately staged joke at the expense of arthouse provocations. Certainly, it throws in vomiting, octogenarian nudity and seemingly makes various nods towards to Bruno Dumont, David Lynch and Jan Svankmajer, to name the most obvious three. Yet if this is to be the case then the joke’s not particularly funny or for that matter worthwhile. The only area in which 4 succeeds, it seems, is in perplexing its audience, albeit to such an extent that we’re left without any response whatsoever. By the time the two hours are up we’ve simply gone beyond caring.
As we’ve come to expect from ICA, 4’s UK DVD handling is unexceptional in the extreme. The film comes in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, but non-anamorphically enhanced and in less than great condition. Whilst clean, the print is lacking in true clarity and as such comes across as rather flat and texture-less. Moreover, the image also has burnt-in subtitles to contend with whilst the original Russian dialogue comes in down-graded DD2.0 form rather than DD5.1. Ultimately it remains watchable, but surely recent cinematic endeavours should deserve much more than this belated effort. Indeed, not only are there no extras on the disc, but also no chapter index.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:12:38