Review of '4 (Chetyre)', director Ilya Khrzhanovsky
This film won two awards at the Rotterdam Film Festival and has sparked controversy in Russia. 'Out of decency and respect for their country, no English or American producer would release such a film', said Rossiiskaya Gazeta, the official government newspaper. Khrzhanovsky, the film's 25 year old director, has alleged that everyone who worked on the film has either been physically attacked or had their property vandalised.
Early in the film three people meet by chance in a bar. They talk about their work in a detached, knowledgeable, matter of fact way, as people do. Oleg confesses that he's in the presidential administration. Marina asks about the president's drinking habits, which turn out to be nowhere near as interesting as those of his wife. Marina, who is in advertising, is promoting a Japanese gadget which calms people down when they're suffering from stress and makes them more productive. Volodya, a geneticist, is working on a programme which has been mass-producing clones for some time.
Although not really, because we find out that Volodya is actually a piano tuner. But then, unbeknown to him and to each other, Oleg is a meat merchant and Marina is a prostitute. This kind of scene is often more suited to the stage. But not here, where the unobtrusive intimacy of the camera, the deadpan wit of the dialogue (by Vladmir Sorokin, a radical writer) and the quiet conviction of the acting all go to construct a mountain of fascinating improbabilities.
I was fascinated and I was looking forward to going deeper into the unexpected. But the film didn't develop quite as I was hoping. Its second hour is dominated by Marina's visit to the village funeral of one of her sisters. The village is a zone of poverty, degradation and inescapable togetherness. It is inhabited almost exclusively by a group of old crones. Up to now they have scraped a living by producing ghoulish dolls. Faced with the prospect of economic annihilation, the villagers embark on a career of orgiastic consumption. One drunken wake follows another. These are the scenes that Rossiiskaya Gazeta took such exception to, accusing Khrzhanovsky of giving Russia a bad image abroad in order to gain plaudits, awards and funding for future projects. The fact that the Russian ministry of culture had part-funded the film provoked special fury. But Khrzhanovsky has said that '4 is about how reality carves out a human's individuality, turning a unique person into a piece of living meat.'
As a Russian reviewer has pointed out, this portrayal of degradation is only a problem for those who want to cover up the fact that 'life for many in the depths of Russia is brutal and repulsive'. But there is a real problem with this part of the film. It is slow, repetitive, pretentious and self-indulgent. Khrzhanovsky has argued that the characters start with lies 'but then life begins to confirm their lies and becomes incomprehensible, just as in reality'. This means that the film ends up by merely striking an attitude - epitomised for me by the repeated and, I suspect, meaningless references to the number four.
Release date: 23 September