4 is insane. It’s Russian in every way we perceive Russian culture to be: raw, harsh, cold. 4 is ugly, grotesque, relentless. Even when it shows you young, beautiful, naked women, the context is anything but erotic or sensual, at least in the way we usually use the word “sensual.” Your senses are definitely being invoked here, just not in the way you might hope. Your eyes and ears are attacked, and even though smell-o-rama isn’t actually a thing, you can basically smell and taste this film. It’s not pleasant.
But it is brilliant. 4 is the story of four strangers who end up at a bar together for a drink. The stories they tell each other are all lies, contradicted by the opening scenes we just saw them emerge from. And yet, for the rest of the film, those lies end up becoming the truth, all the same. Themes and visual motifs run rampant throughout- dogs, meat, the eating of meat… and, of course, the number four. There are 4 pigs, 4 sisters, 4 fish tanks… it might almost become a drinking game, except that director Ilya Khrzhanovsky is smart enough not to let cute visuals get in the way of a truly original story that kicks you in the gut.
The obvious takeaway is that 4 is an allegory for Russia, presumably the Russian state, presumably since the fall of Communism. Everything’s a mess, everything’s a lie, and people’s identities seem to have been taken over by something much greater than them- aka the State. One character is falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit, but ends up embodying the criminal all the same. Another becomes obsessed with finding a specific breed of pig, inspired by one of the bar’s tall tales- and a third, whose story takes up a good chunk of the film, returns to her home village- one overrun by wild old babushkas who eek out a living fashioning dolls out of chewed bread.
The whole thing is like if Victor Serge had a baby with David Lynch, though even that description doesn’t really do Khrzhanovsky’s genius justice; he has a knack for telling out-there stories in a visceral style that never lets go, pacing his films in odd narrative ways that seem disjointed, but fit perfectly. Come with no expectations, and simply enjoy- if that’s the right word- the nightmarish ride.
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