Monday, December 1, 2014



          1. having a fantastic or deceptive appearance, as something in a dream or created by the imagination.

It’s easy to site Tarkovsky as an influence on a young Russian filmmaker like Ilya Khrzhanovsky. Much like Tarkovsky's films (especially The Mirror), Ilya’s 4 deals with surreality and stream of consciousness (there's even a moment at the end of 4 that may be a slight nod to The Mirror). But any modern Russian film that’s mildly strange automatically gets a Tarkovsky comparison in the same way that any "strange"/non-linear American film gets a default David Lynch comparison. If anything, Ilya Khrzhanovsky is a student of Russian filmmakers like Elim Klimov & Alexandre Sokurov. While Klimov & Sokurov are certainly in the same lane as Tarkovsky (some might even call them students of his), their cinema differs from the late great Russian filmmaker because the surrealism in their work is much more aggressive and in your face (certain films within Sokurov's filmography makes me feel downright on edge because they straddle the line between a beautiful dream and an awful nightmare). While Sacrifice, Solaris, Ivan’s Childhood & Stalker aren’t about anything pleasant (the apocalypse, war, mental illness, death, etc), I’d still much rather live in the world of those films over Come & See (Klimov), The Sun (Sokurov) or 4 (Khrzhanovsky).

4 / Stalker
(a possible nod to Tarkovsky?)

4 definitely falls in to that sketchbook cinema category (a term/genre I coined in 2012) along with other stuff like Post Tenebras Lux (Reygadas), The Intruder (Denis), Uncle Boonmee… (Weerasethakul), etc. On some level it feels like a collection of unfinished ideas combined to make one mega-film. There is a basic plot to 4 in which a group of strangers strike up a conversation at a bar one late night and all proceed to lie too each other about what they do for a living. A piano tuner (“Volodya”) claims to be a lab technician who specializes in cloning, a meat vendor (“Oleg”) claims to work for Vladimir Putin (in an unspecified role), and a prostitute (“Marina”) claims to be an ad executive (she even goes so far as to exchange fake information with Volodya). Their conversation is overseen by a narcoleptic bartender who drifts in & out between serving everyone drinks. 

Once the strangers go their separate ways at the end of the night, their lives start to take strange turns (especially for Marina who pretty much becomes the main focus during the last half of the film). 

But much like other sketchbook cinema movies, 4 is less about the plot and more about the strange, surreal and (sometimes) nightmarish vibe that Ilya Khrzhanovsky conveys. Perhaps 4 is his own personal abstract vision of modern Russia. He paints the nation as a rather dark, drab & industrial place. Imagine Henry's surroundings in Eraserhead except in color and with a few more people walking around at night. 

It’s hard to sum up an entire movie with just one word (especially for me), but phantasmagoric is quite fitting (I swear I didn't learn until after I wrote this that an old Indiewire review also used this term to describe 4). All the characters in the film are deceptive to one another. Even the filmmaker is deceptive with the audience. Ilya Khrzhanovsky toys with us to the point where you start to question if anything is real. The one thing you do need to take in to serious consideration while watching 4 is that it goes in & out of what some might consider to be a dream world really seamlessly (it should go without saying that you need to pay attention while watching any movie, but you need to pay extra attention to 4). And, even if you are giving the film your undivided attention, there’s a good chance you may zone out to the point where even though you’re watching the images on the screen, you’ll stop paying attention to the plot (that happened to me the first time I watched it). 
One minute, you feel like you’re in a safe dream with 4. The imagery during certain scenes are hypnotic & polarizing. Then the next thing you know, that safe dream suddenly turns in to a nightmare. This is one of the few truly disturbing films that doesn’t have any gore, blood or guts. After sitting through 4, which clocks in at just over two hours, you’ll find yourself going; “what did I just watch?!”

The number 4 is obviously critical to the story. Various things pop up in quantities of 4 through the course of the film in both plain sight and in the background...
4 pigs on display at a butcher shop
4 fish tanks placed in plain sight
4 dogs laying around at the opening of the film (with 4 dolls on display in the window in the background)
4 military planes in the background

but for the most part, the title of the film holds the same amount of importance as Dr. Strangelove or Todd Hayne’s Poison does to their respective stories (I tried googling the possible importance of the number 4 as it relates to Russia but nothing really stood out).
In a strange way, 4 has some of Robert Altman's DNA in it as well. There's usually something important going on in the background that you may not know to pay attention too on the first viewing.

It’s tough to not gush over Ilya Khrzhanovsky's directorial debut in an unembarrassing way (this is a personal favorite of mine), but it genuinely defies any one genre. Some may try to box 4 into the science fiction genre because it deals with (possible) alternate realities and cloning, but it’s also part (dark) comedy as there’s plenty moments that are laugh out loud funny (like the narcoleptic bartender). Khrzhanovsky's view of modern day Russia is sad (you see a lot of poverty & sorrow in the background of the film) but he’s also cynical and pokes fun at his homeland too. 4 is also somewhat political (in a passive way) as Putin’s name is dropped numerous times to the point where it has to mean something deeper, and the presence of the military is more than prevalent in certain parts.

Of course this film isn’t for everyone, so it’s difficult to openly suggest it, but if you’re in to all the aforementioned films (Stalker, The Mirror, Uncle Boonmee, The Intruder, etc) and filmmakers, 4 should definitely be at the top of your must-see list if you haven’t checked it out already…


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