The Meaning of 4

There is nothing quite like 4. Ilya Khrzhanovsky's debut feature is one of the most original pieces of filmmaking to grace the screen in recent memory. From the dramatic opening ("It hits you on the h...

There is nothing quite like 4. Ilya Khrzhanovsky's debut feature is one of the most original pieces of filmmaking to grace the screen in recent memory. From the dramatic opening ("It hits you on the head," says Khrzhanovsky) to its highly ironic ending, 4 intrigues with its disparate themes of human deception, cloning and genetics, and the dire straits of the Russian agrarian system.

Four (!) years in the making— funding was difficult due to the unorthodox nature of its premise— 4’s excellent script is co-written by Vladimir Sorokin, a notorious name in post-Soviet Russian literature.

At first, a narrative is established around four people who meet in a bar. Over the course of the conversation they fabricate entire lives for themselves: a prostitute becomes an advertising executive, a meat wholesaler delivers mineral water to the prime minister, a piano tuner presents himself as a geneticist— only the dozing barman isn’t duplicitous.

“The fact that people lie has always worried everybody,” says Khrzhanovsky. “In my film people lie because they want for a second to feel that they’re different, and stop for a second, to be themselves.”

After this seemly generic setup, it seems natural that the story should develop from these characters, but Khrzhanovsky surprises us again.

“The scene in the bar lasted for half an hour. After that there was one storyline not three, only because I liked [Marina, the prostitute] more than the others,” Khrzhanovsky says acknowledging a certain self-indulgency in his filmmaking style.

Consequentially, the rest of the film unreels like a drunken dream— both brilliantly lucid, and at times, completely unfathomable. Marina (Marina Vovchenko) travels to a small village for a funeral, and suddenly the film takes on a visceral intensity: the constant noise of buzzing flies and barking dogs, the cackling of the old women in the village, the blood and fat of a slaughtered pig, acres of black, squelching mud, countless litres of homemade vodka sloshing into glasses. Khrzhanovsky seems to disregard cinematic conventions in favour of a wholly sensory driven experience.

“If I have scenes with nothing happening— Marina walks for eight minutes, the drinking scene lasts for a long time— this isn’t because I’m daft,” says Khrzhanovsky. “All this drinking, walking gives a physiological feeling of life— it has the sharpest effect on the spectator… And Russian drinking sessions and Russian roads are endless.”

Using this visual and aural melange, Khrzhanovsky says he wants to challenge the complacency of the viewer.

“The audience are closed circuit people, “ he says. “They do not express themselves; they like to keep their distance. It’s important for me to break that distance.”

4 is a brilliant, but deeply ambiguous film, and Khrzhanovsky is not about to provide any simple explanations. For example, there are dogs present throughout the film, and in both the opening and closing scenes. Is their inclusion significant, or are they merely part of the cluttered mise en scene?

“What I am about to say is both the truth and a lie,” says Khrzhanovsky. “I think cinema is close to music… We can listen to the same piece of music, but it would be difficult for you to explain to me the meaning of the trombones in the second movement.

“In the same way, when you see a film, what is important is how you see it. Whatever you think of the dogs is what matters. Of course, I could also say that dogs are man’s best friend; that they will give you a kiss… and then bite you; that for a dog, there is no distance between intention and action, while in humans there is a certain ritual between the two.”

“But what I have said,” Khrzhanovsky concludes enigmatically, “is actually unimportant.”

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