Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 14 August 2006
Source 35mm print
With thunderous immediacy pile-drivers crack open a street late in the night, frightening a group of stray dogs, and prefacing a chain of dump trucks as they snake through an otherwise sparse, damp city. The title card follows: 4.
The jolt encourages a hyper-awareness in the spectator, a condition on which Ilya Khrjanovsky’s debut subsists. One may note the four dogs, the four pile-drivers, four trucks, and four dolls arranged in a store window behind them. Hereafter, the number may be noticed repeatedly. 4 is, by this measure, a playful numerology, and as with its spiritual template in the work of Greenaway, one is determined to ascertain some quantitative solution for the riddle implied within.
Such mysticism distinguishes 4. It is a sort of film prone to rumination, characteristically enhanced by a late-night screening, rendering the viewer’s fatigue-induced imagination barely distinguishable from that of the film. Appropriately, it begins so far past midnight that the barkeep at an establishment to which three drifters find their way can barely keep his eyes open. The three patrons are two men and one woman, each of them inquisitive of the others’ lives and willing to finish each drink given to him. This sequence lasts roughly a half hour and is unexpectedly placid given the fright that precedes it. A wrecking ball smashing through the frame — or some other behemoth disruptor of quiet — would not be entirely unforeseen.
The three share stories concerned with what they do, and their tales are each elaborate and unusual. One was involved in a Soviet cloning program, another distributes water to Kremlin leaders; none of their stories is true. Jostling the barkeep to pay their tabs, the three eventually wander home. Any cohesion between the two men and woman is (and will essentially remain) indefinite, but it is of some significance that they are each insincere—it is this quality I ascribe to Khrjanovsky’s methodology, as his film is capable of great provocation even though its purposes remain opaque.
This insincerity is challenged in the film’s final passage, finding the young woman en route to her rural home to visit her family following the death of her sister. Her travel is captured in mobile long takes as she proceeds to a more deprived, formerly industrialized locale. She is met by a collective of elderly women, who produce doll heads by masticating bread. Occasionally, the two men who shared her company earlier are seen in varying scenarios: one is a piano-tuner and is arrested (perhaps this is related to the death of the woman’s sister, but any correlation remains obscure). The second man is something of a butcher, and at a restaurant he is introduced to the extraordinary sight of a “round piglet”—he is shown four of them, little pig heads at the front of unusually spherical bodies.
An interpretation of 4’s obscene, unusual contents does little to describe it as an uncommonly provocative enterprise—this is not to say, necessarily, that it is recommended. It is better anticipated as a sort of Makavejevian sideshow of atrocity, specifically his Sweet Movie, which concludes with the image of a naked woman massaging chocolate over her entire body. Makavejev’s blending of sex and consumerism repulses with little effort, and the same capability befits 4; even if its reasoning remains illogical, it amounts to a demonstration of unbridled audacity.