Exhilarating, infuriating, mesmerizing, baffling, and out-and-out crazy, 4 certainly doesn’t lack for ambition and outrageousness. Having caused quite a stir in its native Russia—where local censors objected to its bleak vision of the country as a cesspool of moral, spiritual, and physical decay (as well as, no doubt, its discussion of Mr. and Mrs. Putin’s imbibing habits)—Ilya Khrjanovsky’s debut is gonzo in the truest, wildest sense of the word, an assaultive allegorical dissection of Russia’s political and social disorder that vacillates so rowdily, and yet so fluidly, between dissonant tones, genres, and stylistic tactics that it achieves the considerable feat of keeping one both intensely enraptured and wholly off balance.
Written by controversial postmodern scribe Vladimir Sorokin with one foot planted in grungy reality and the other in fleshy, putrefying surreality, the film descends into a phantasmagoric netherworld of cloning, mind-altering air ionizers, rotting meat, and roaming dogs with only a passing interest in traditional narrative, its sly subtextual commentary and numerology-tinged signifiers crowding Khrjanovsky’s frame like scattered pieces of an elaborate, partially completed puzzle. With a brazen obtuseness that allows room for myriad far-fetched interpretations, it’s a near-masterpiece of the beguilingly bizarre, a trenchant critique of post-communism corrosion brewed together with ingredients both eccentric and horrifying. Queasiness guaranteed.
4 begins with a bang, its first shot of four dogs lying serenely on a city street—a yellow traffic light in the background blinking on and off like a portentous caution—rudely interrupted by jackhammering metal drills and roaring street plows that viciously tear apart the peaceful night. A magnificently nerve-wracking opening salvo, it’s a stunning depiction of the disharmonious relationship between organic and mechanical beasts that, as confirmed by the later recurring audio-visual emblems that litter the director’s mise-en-scène, serves as the template for Khrjanovsky’s oblique, nightmarish film. Soon afterward, three people walk into a bar and, while consuming copious drinks and cigarettes, regale each other with stories about their professions: Oleg (Konstantin Murzenko) says he’s a bureaucrat charged with providing the Kremlin with mineral water (the Prez’s preferred brand coming straight from the Volga); Marina (Mariia Vovchenko) claims she works in advertising for a Japanese company; and Vladimir (Yuri Laguta) asserts that he toils on a top-secret human cloning project that began in the late 1940s and has now resulted, thanks to a process involving four chromosomes, in thousands of “doubles” who reside either amid normal society (if they’re healthy) or in slums (if they’re sick). Marina is intrigued by Vladimir’s yarn. Oleg remains skeptical, remarking that such Franken-science is against international law. “You forget what country we live in,” replies Vladimir.
All three, it turns out, are liars—Oleg is a meat seller, Marina a whore, Vladimir a piano tuner—but their attempt at (transitory) self-reinvention speaks to 4‘s preoccupation with myth-making, as the film is, in part, Khrjanovsky’s own attempt at crafting a horrific parable about Russia’s increasingly absurd, disgusting metamorphosis. Beginning (and ending) his chatty pub scene with a sustained, largely static master shot, the director soon segues into alternating close-ups that cannily visualize the shifting dynamics of the trio’s conversation and create a momentary sense of circuitous interconnectedness. Such carefully choreographed balance, however, is quickly jettisoned in favor of anarchic fantasticality, as the ensuing tale largely ignores Oleg and Vladimir to focus its attention on Marina as she returns to her countryside home to attend the funeral of sibling Zoya. Marina, it seems, is one of four sisters (the other living two looking like twin Anna Kournikovas), and her village is a gutter in which cackling, drunken hags use chewed-up bread called “chewies” to make Jan Svankmajer-style dolls. Marina used to mold the old ladies’ chewies by hand, giving each doll (according to her morose boyfriend Marat) a “special,” distinct individuality, and her death—by choking while chewing some bread—has now cast this creepy mini-community’s one-dimensional economic system into peril.
Is Marina’s town one of the genetically engineered clone slums facetiously spoken of by Vladimir? And what of the apparently unnatural “round piglets” that meat-man Oleg learns about when dining at a restaurant? Reality mirrors myth, the extraordinary becomes symbiotically knotted with the mundane, and Khrjanovsky piles on oddity after oddity while refusing to throw his increasingly befuddled audience a bone that might explicitly explain the ongoing madness. Fully, breathtakingly, in command of his film’s discombobulating fluctuations in atmosphere and rhythm, the director habitually returns to specific motifs—dogs, meat, alcohol, cigarettes, pigs, breasts—until underlying themes begin to peek out from underneath the superficial nastiness. Man’s corruption by means of technological progress, modern Russians’ inherent bestiality (“We’re all like dogs” crows one old lady, shot—like her unattractive compatriots—in extreme close-up), and the devolution of morality in the face of socio-political breakdowns all form bits and pieces of 4‘s filthy, putrid topography, with Khrjanovsky’s inspired juxtapositions and stylistic affectations (such as the repetition of a train car scene in which men and women hungrily devour huge slabs of meat in squishy, sloppy, stomach-churning bites) creating subtle links between his primary Marina-focused plot thread and his many strange digressions.
Connecting everything in 4 is the number four, which is so abundantly manifest—four naked bodies lying in a bed, four dolls laid out on a haystack, four girls in a moldy childhood photograph, or (most amusingly) three pigs joined by the decapitated head of a fourth—that the digit soon takes on totemic qualities. “It was never sacred in any culture’s history…Four! The number the world rests on,” exclaims Vladimir during his genetics-related tall tale, though Khrjanovsky—despite casting the number as his film’s binding lynchpin—leaves the exact reason behind his imagistic quadrupling tantalizingly mysterious. As with the distorted sight of Marina and her two sisters in a cracked mirror, what the first-time director most readily seeks is an immersive mood of disorientation, of through-the-looking-glass madness, an effect he achieves via a combination of the starkly beautiful (Béla Tarr-inspired panoramas of Marina traversing the factory-peppered landscape; a conscripted Vladimir marching off to war) and nauseatingly grotesque (take your pick). And while his confrontational belligerence can occasionally seem a tad too immature, Khrjanovsky—such as when the elderly hags torment Marat with their anatomically correct dolls, an encapsulation of the film’s vision of male impotence—predominantly imbues his titillating/nauseating material with a healthy measure of metaphorical bulk.
Because Khrjanovsky wears his influences on his sleeves, much of 4 feels like a mélange of borrowed elements from prior, illustrious sources: Marina’s journey into the damp, misty Russian forest recalls Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker; compositions composed of intertwined nude limbs feel indebted to Aleksandr Sokurov’s Father and Son; and the clanging, buzzing, grinding aural design—which approximates what it might sound like inside a broken-down radiator—seems modeled after David Lynch’s ominously cacophonous Eraserhead. Still, by obsessively indulging in symbolic overload while off-handedly shuttling storylines, the film finds unique terra firma on which to stand, its quotient of unusual, idiosyncratic, and decadent details finally coalescing into a mesmerizing portrait of modern-day Russia as a wasteland divided between a messy, mystical (rural) past and crumbling, industrial (urban) future.
Khrjanovsky eventually ends his epic on a somewhat hopeful note, but it’s a small gesture incapable of overshadowing the preceding, stunningly foul third-act showpiece, in which a vodka-soaked bacchanalia culminates with two of the doll-making crones pulling, fondling, and pouring liquor on their naked bosoms. A depiction of a lost society’s degeneration into unsalvageable debauchery? Or simply one last provocation perpetrated by a director intent on condemning his birthplace with full-throttled bad taste? Either way, it’s a jaw-dropping moment that, like 4 itself, truly has to be seen to be believed.