4 is a self-indulgent, sprawling narrative film, with the barest outline of a script, but there is little doubt that director Ilya Khrzhanovsky is a new talent. In a simple tavern scene involving the three principal characters, the Russian director, through sly camera angles, clever dialogue and superb timing, brilliantly deconstructs character, narrative and place, and recalls both the freewheeling visual style of French New Wave directors like François Truffaut and Jean Luc Godard, and the surrealism of Fellini in Fellini Satyricon. 4 is an uncompromising, unsympathetic portrait of modern Russia, an investigation of displacement and alienation much like Michaelangelo Antonioni's Red Desert.
Although the celebrated Russian author Vladimir Sorokin receives credit for the screenplay, and he suggested the title, Khrzhanovsky admits that the film "evolved" when it was apparent that for some reason Sorokin's story just didn't work. It is not clear where Khrzhanovsky's ideas begin and Sorokin's screenplay leaves off, but the post-modernist writer is famous for his deconstruction of narrative and for his celebration of the grotesque. One thing is certain: Khrzhanovsky believes Russia is in a precarious balancing act with its frenzied leaps toward the technological age, and its nostalgic backward glances at its secretive past. The film's title refers to clandestine human cloning experiments conducted by the KGB, a tale fabricated by of one of the characters, and an idea that harkens back to the brutality of Soviet-era Russia and the dark side of the Russian psyche.
In the opening shot of the film, stray dogs lie innocently on a Moscow street, empty of traffic in the hours before daylight. Suddenly, outsized snowplows and construction vehicles thunder onto the road and the dogs scurry for their lives. In the tavern scene that follows shortly afterward, Marina, a prostitute, expresses her disgust to her two companions-Oleg, a meat seller, and Volodya, a piano tuner-over a drunken driver who has just killed a dog. The dog's cries can be heard in the background. All three of the characters then drink to excess and tell fantastic lies. With astonishing economy, Khrzhanovsky has established his theme: If alcohol doesn't poison body and mind, Russia's embrace of monstrous technology will. The dogs, like their human counterparts, can only scramble about while awaiting the next assault.
In the longest sequence in 4, Marina, the prostitute, returns home to attend her twin sister's funeral, and there she eats and drinks with the village crones who make strange dolls from chewed bread. Marina's sister, who shaped the faces of the dolls-they're all alike-died from an attempt at chewing the bread. It's a bizarre story with the ring of truth, and although the Bacchanalian feast that follows the funeral also stretches credulity, it nevertheless possesses a gritty authenticity. The light is oblique, the vodka flows as it does everywhere in Russia, and there's an odd seductive quality to the ugliness of the crones. 4 self-destructs as the narrative spins out of control, but the performances are so good and the images so darkly expressive that Khrzhanovsky's experiment with cinematic deconstructionism nearly works.