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Il'ia Khrzhanovskii, 4 [Chetyre] (2004)

reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky©2005

 


Of Clones and Crones

Although new Russian cinema is overrun with children of the industry’s celebrities, Il'ia Khrzhanovskii, the son of the famous animation director Andrei Khrzhanovskii—Once There Lived Koziavin (Zhil-byl Koziavin, 1966), The Glass Harmonica (Stekliannaia garmonika, 1968), and a series of animated films based on Pushkin’s drawings[1] —has managed to separate himself radically not only from his peers, but also from the mainstream of Russian cinema of the 2000s. 4 is his first full-length independent film [2] and an original project; the idea for the film was shaped by the young director together with the famous writer Vladimir Sorokin. Most importantly, 4 has already earned a scandalous reputation. The Kinotavr Open Russian Film Festival crowd was so appalled by the director’s depiction of contemporary Russia that some critics even pointed to the film as a fresh example of Russophobia. Other film critics subjected Khrzhanovskii to a mock trial, debating whether the criminal should be hanged or just shot. The director, however, seemed to react quite seriously to these jokes. In an interview in Novaia gazeta, he remarked: “The mock trial of the film, in the context of the festival’s discussions, turned out to be not that harmless.”[3]  The success of 4 on the international film scene (two awards in Rotterdam, award for Best First Film in Seattle, participation in the Venice festival), on the one hand, and the Russian Ministry of Culture’s reluctant release of the film with restrictive qualifications, on the other, recalls late Soviet cultural politics towards Tarkovskii, Paradzhanov, and other classics of auteur cinema.

Will the reputation of being the first film dissident of Putin’s time be a curse or a blessing for the young director? It’s hard to say. What matters, however, is that Khrzhanovskii obviously managed to break some unspoken taboos. The reception of 4 proved wrong a widespread conviction that contemporary Russian culture does not have any real taboos, that post-Soviet chaos had eliminated all boundaries and had made an effective transgression impossible. It does. It didn’t. It’s possible.

It should be noted that, although Khrzhanovskii’s film is very close to Sorokin’s original script (already published in a book [4]), it would be unfair to say that Sorokin is responsible for the scandal caused by the film. Sorokin’s scripts are different from his shock-effect fiction, as viewers of Aleksandr Zel'dovich’s Moscow (2000) or Ivan Dykhovichnyi’s The Kopeck (2002) can attest; no wonder that after these films Sorokin became a fashionable scriptwriter. Moreover, the 12-minute long scene in 4 depicting a drunken orgy of village crones, cursing and displaying their breasts to one another, derives from two brief remarks in Sorokin’s text, which mentions only drinking, an indistinguishable song, and dancing with a pig’s head. 

The film traces the story of three characters who meet in a Moscow (?) bar in the middle of the night: Vladimir, a piano tuner, brilliantly acted by the famous singer Sergei Shnurov; Oleg, a seller of meat (Iurii Laguta); and Marina (Marina Vovchenko), most likely a prostitute. The scene of their encounter in the presence of a sleepy bartender―the fourth participant―is shot differently than the rest of the film. Its atmosphere promises a film noir, a dark wonder-tale, perhaps a gothic love story―but not a hopeless and complex (or vague?) parable shot in the “Dogma”-like, quasi-documentary style. In this scene, each character convincingly (and, apparently, habitually) displays his or her fictitious identity. Oleg pretends to be an FSB officer responsible for supplying the Kremlin with drinking water. Marina acts as if she sells some mysterious Japanese office machine that tranquilizes and invigorates personnel. Vladimir calls himself a chemist in a secret laboratory involved in human cloning. 

Vladimir’s performance, however, has more far-reaching effects than those of his acquaintances, despite the fact that he is the only one who admits to lying about his occupation. He lectures on the (fake?) history of human cloning (doubling) that started in the Soviet Union back in 1947 and continues until now. Vladimir notes that the optimal survival rate has proven to be associated with the set of four―rather than two or, say, twelve―copies of the same chromosome. He also speaks of entire villages inhabited by the failures of experiments in cloning. All these fantasies turn out to be true―and Marina knows this better than anybody: she is one of four quadruplets/clones herself. Soon she will be called to attend the funeral of her fourth sister in the village where her sister lived and died, a village that is inhabited only by old ladies and that can very well be one of the villages mentioned by Volodia. Yet, this is not clear; it can also be any Russian village, abandoned by everyone but old crones. This setting is already familiar to viewers of Russian films of the 2000s, for instance, Gennadii Sidorov’s Little Old Ladies (Starukhi, 2003) and Lidiia Bobrova’s Granny (Babusia, 2003). 

Vladimir’s and Oleg’s stories are designed symmetrically, but develop in opposite directions. Vladimir is an artistic and free character―the choice of Shnurov for this part is justified in every respect. It is no wonder that he tries to seduce Marina. No wonder that after leaving the bar, he goes to a night club, where his freedom can be expressed at least by dancing. There, in an empty room with four aquariums, Volodia speaks with an old man―charismatically played by the late Aleksei Khvostenko―who states that the main difference between a human being and anything else is that a thing or an animal is already done, completed, while a human is not: 

MAN: …We can easily become anybody and anything. This is why a human doesn’t have a name yet. 
VOLODIA: Generally speaking, I am Volodia. 
MAN: So what? In half an hour you may become a homeless dog. Or a rug, on which a cute girl will clean her feet. Or just a living piece of meat. 
VOLODIA: This isn’t right. One always has a choice. One may not become a dog. Or a rug. There is always an escape hatch through which one can escape. 
MAN: Suicide? Yes. But this is a palliative measure […] A forced move […] Forced moves don’t count in this game. [5]

In this philosophical program, Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of “incompleteness” as the central characteristic of a human self and as the main foundation of freedom, acquires a terrifying dimension. Incompleteness in 4 means the absence of any existential breaks and protections, the openness of a character to any—even the most unexpected—metamorphoses. Sorokin (since this is his philosophy) couples Bakhtin with Kafka; and what happens with Volodia proves that Bakhtin’s optimism in regard to human incompleteness, is groundless. In the very next scene, Volodia is arrested and during the interrogation cannot find anything to say against the absurd, yet strangely convincing (purely Sorokin’s) accusations―or rather chanting―of the cop who is sure that he has caught a criminal. The following scene in which Volodia appears shows him in prison polishing wooden symbols of the state. His nickname (“Dyriavyi”— “Hole-ly”), his obedience, and especially his singing (implying his prison role as “a rooster”―“petukh”), clearly demonstrate that he was raped and transformed into a “human rug.” Finally, in one of the last scenes of the film, we see Volodia marching in military uniform to an airplane while the loudspeaker’s voice announces that former convicts are allowed to repent their crimes by serving Russia in one of the “hot spots” of the former empire. One may easily guess that this is where the old man’s prophecy about a “living piece of meat” will come true. 

During this entire series of metamorphoses, Volodia says nothing―he only sings a sentimental criminal song “on demand.” In parallel with his silence (and despite the drastic and tragic changes in the life of the character), Shnurov preserves the same facial expression throughout the scenes following his arrest. His usually incredibly vivid face transforms into an odd, yet tortured mask of irony and horror at the same time. In lieu of the film’s central metaphor, one may say that Volodia undergoes the process of being cloned: Volodia, a piano tuner, is cloned as a murder suspect, a con, a “rooster,” a soldier―all these men look alike, but they have nothing else in common. Illuminatingly, the viewer cannot even say if Volodia was arrested for a real or fictitious crime; this does not matter. In fact, since a human has no means to protect his/her identity from the forces of societal chaos and existential “cloning”―is there anything that matters at all? Perhaps, this is the question that froze on Shnurov’s face.

If Volodia’s position manifests the dangers of openness and incompleteness, Oleg, who fantasizes about being a state official, surrounds himself with strict rules and regulations in order to protect his world from anything unpredictable. These rules are far from rational. They are closer to superstitions, yet their rigidity is what matters. With the same firmness Oleg claims that he never buys or sells ground meat, that the murder of a dog is a bad omen, but if one accidentally kills a bum, this will bring luck. Similarly, when he is offered to taste round piglets in a restaurant, he is certain that there is no such thing. He is a meat seller after all, and cannot be tricked in this own field! Right? Wrong! Four amazingly round piglets are unveiled to him in the restaurant’s kitchen; and a truck with the “Round Piglets” logo crosses his path several times. Moreover, Oleg learns that his own company has been selling these piglets for two years now.

A sarcastic parallel to Oleg’s strategy is presented by his father Misha (Aleksandr Adoskin), who compulsively disinfects and steams everything in the apartment, from food to garbage cans because “one cannot underestimate the power of microbes.” This is his struggle with “the forces of hell,” which paradoxically makes him totally helpless and dependant on his son. Ironically, the composition of one of the film’s scenes copies Rembrandt’s "Prodigal Son" with one significant shift: it is the father, Misha, who plays the humiliated son. However, cloning comes to the mind here too: while Misha acts like a bio-robot from an old sci-fi film, Oleg genetically doubles his father, but with a chronological delay. Misha’s weakness foreshadows Oleg’s failure. After the “lesson” of the round piglets, Oleg loosens up a bit, and even (!) decides to buy and sell ground meat. Yet, this does not help him. In the finale, while trying to avoid a collision with a dog, he runs his car into a cement wall, and apparently dies. 

Marina is situated between these two opposite strategies of dealing with life, death, and fate in the space of chaos. In fact, she does not have any strategy at all. She just lives. No wonder, that―in the context of the film―she is one of the clones. Her trip from Moscow to her native village to attend her sister’s funeral is depicted in many details. First, the train ride―eating and drinking compartment companions, same questions asked by different people, same answers given by Marina; then, the desolate and empty station; then, the long, long walk along fences with barbed wire, then through empty fields. Apparently, the length of this segment embodies the symbolic distance between the city and the place that Marina is heading. When the film shows this place, it becomes clear why this distance should be that great. 

This is the land of death. 

Except for Zoia, who has died, and her useless husband Marat (Konstantin Murzenko), this place is inhibited only by old hags. The three sisters who have come to the funeral (the real sisters of Marina Vovchenko―Irina and Svetlana) are all visitors who will leave this place as soon as possible. Imagine a wonder-tale with three Russian beauties and numerous Baba Iagas (played by real villagers), who curse, drink, fight, laugh and cry―and all of this is shot in a documentary, almost emotionless style. 

Making dolls is the crones’ business―their only source of income. In Russian wonder-tales, dolls were communicators with the world of dead ancestors. Romantic and modernist interpretations, however, have colored this motif differently: as the manifestation of standardization, the mechanical pseudo-life of modernity. In contrast to these traditions, dolls in 4 possess more individuality than people; paradoxically, even these dolls’ faces are more meaningful than those of the real villagers. Significantly, the late Zoia was the only person who could make individual faces for the dolls. Her husband, Marat, tries to preserve Zoia’s works as models for future dolls and, to this end, brings all the dolls together in the church. Yet, the result is the opposite of his intention: Marat falls asleep drunk and village dogs eat all the dolls’ faces. In the end we see a terrifying shot of dolls with a uniform face―Marat had decided to make a mask of his own face to use for new doll’s faces. Marina is so appalled by this sight that she burns all of the new dolls on Zoia’s grave. 

The exhaustion of individuality reaches its final point through this subplot; it comes to the zero level. This is where the motif of clones re-occurs. By the way, 4 is not the first of Sorokin’s texts to play with this idea. Unlike the novel Blue Lard (Goluboe salo) or the opera libretto Rosenthal’s Children (Deti Rozentalia), cloning in 4 is much less connected with Soviet or futuristic models of modernity and much more with archaic themes and rituals. The funeral, mourning, bathing, the wake, and the constant use of the dolls as human substitutes with emphasized sexuality―brings up the entire set of concepts associated mostly with rites of passage and, specifically, with mythologies of death. Thus, the village is the land of death, with no hope for rebirth or a new life. And with no sentimentality either. 

The scene of the wake seemingly contains all of the markers of another traditional archetype: the carnival. Excessive eating and drinking, cursing, obscene gestures, unrestrained sexuality―all these elements are reminiscent of Bakhtin’s famous descriptions of the medieval carnival. Moreover, several times in his book Bakhtin mentions terracotta figurines of pregnant and laughing old hags from Kerch', preserved in the Hermitage. For Bakhtin, this is a model of the carnivalistic grotesque body: he interprets it as a fusion of death and new life, as the apotheosis of incompleteness. Khrzhanovskii’s crones, playing with their naked breasts and imitating sexual acts with dolls, are of the same nature. However, new life or even its possibility is excluded from the film’s perspective. The episode in the bathhouse where we see the beautiful and young bodies of the sisters is accompanied by a conversation from which we learn how Marina’s body is rotting and how a dead baby was surgically extracted from her piece by piece. These bodies are barren―they are merely young versions of the old crones. They are also their clones and, as clones, cannot reproduce.

                  

Thus, the carnival transforms into its opposite―a festival of death with no return. The scene of throwing a pig’s head as feed to other pigs marks the final meaning of this ritual: self-destruction, self-consumption―cynical and animalistic. No wonder that this scene shocked critics: it is antagonistic to the traditional Russian depiction of old peasant women as the keepers of moral and cultural traditions, the approach that started with Solzhenitsyn’s Matryona and “village prose,” and is preserved even in Sidorov’s Little Old Ladies. Khrzhanovskii does not evoke any empathy for his poor old ladies. They are disgusting and cynical. They celebrate death and have no pity for life. Their traditions are ancient indeed―these crones manifest the cultural uncanny, something that culture tries to screen, to hide from view. All in vain: it is right here―just take the train from Moscow. 

Thus, the “heart of Russia” appears as a “heart of darkness.” 

Is this Russophobia? In the heavily politicized context of contemporary Russia, fixated on the myth of national greatness, Khrzhanovskii’s film cannot be perceived otherwise than politically. Tarkovskii’s Andrei Rublev (1966) was also interpreted as the blackening of the Russian heroic past. Does this diminish its philosophical scope?

Khrzhanovskii’s image of Russia is constructed through the combination of recurring images: monstrous machines (usually we see four of them), whose mechanisms function as claws and talons; empty, or rather abandoned spaces; ruins in which Soviet symbols mix with pre-Soviet symbols, but all are equalized by the sense of destruction; darkness and mud everywhere. And stray dogs―barking, howling, crossing roads, chasing after something―and in all cases signifying closeness to death. The repetition of fours―four trucks, four aquariums, four lamps, fours sisters, four clones, etc.―is also not a pure formality. “4 is an ideal number,” exclaims Volodia, “and most remarkably, this number was never magical in world history… This is the number on which the world is founded. Not 3, but 4! This is truly a cornerstone with four corners.” Volodia is not accurate: 4 is magical―this is the number of death in Chinese mythology. And dogs, by the way, are traditionally associated with death, too (Anubis, Cerberus, Hecate). 

Is this the image of Russia or of existential chaos? Or, perhaps, of the specific kind of chaos that Russia can exemplify?

In his writings Sorokin consistently exposes the central mechanism of Soviet and classical Russian discourses as the fusion of opposite models: utopias of modernity with their striving to standardize life’s complexity, on the one hand, and the archaic rituals and traditions that shape the collective body of the “we,” from which an individual does not separate one’s self and in which s/he finds the inexhaustible source of dukhovnost', on the other. 4 depicts the logical result of this mechanism’s functioning throughout the twentieth century: existential erosion, a tiresome festival of death, the transformation of chaos into entropy―played out in all three versions by the three protagonists.

Unfortunately, the filmic narrative does not avoid the latter effect either. Beginning with Marina’s arrival in the village, 4, step by step, loses its plot energy. The second half of the film consists of monotonous repetitions of homogenous images and themes, yet, seems to have no rhythm at all. I am not trying to justify the Russian Ministry of Culture, which demanded that forty minutes of Khrzhanovskii’s film be cut. [6] I don’t suggest cutting anything, but I must admit that too many long shots, too many lengthy walks, and too little action cannot help being irritating. Transgression may happen on the basis of boredom, but this is not the case. The lack of catharsis is in a way logical: if the characters are deprived of it, why should the viewers have the experience? 

Khrzhanovskii claims in the interview published in Novaia gazeta that his film is “about our sameness, our striving not to feel anything, our desire to hide underneath the feather blanket of comfort.” This is not an accurate description of the film, rather it describes what 4 could have become, but didn’t. Khrzhanovskii’s film is scandalous indeed, but it is not explosive. It is intellectually engaging, but after a certain point it becomes predictable. It is uncomfortable, but not to the point where it hurts. 

Mark Lipovetsky, University of Colorado, Boulder


4, Russia, 2004
Color, 126 minutes
Director: Il'ia Khrzhanovskii
Screenplay: Vladimir Sorokin
Cinematography: Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev, Aleksandr Ilkhovskii, Shandor Berkeshi
Art Director: Shavkat Abdusalamov
Sound: Kirill Vasilenko
Cast: Marina Vovchenko, Irina Vovchenko, Svetlana Vovchenko, Sergei (“Shnur”) Shnurov, Iurii Laguta, Konstantin Murzenko, Aleksei Khvostenko, Anatolii Adoskin
Producer: Elena Iatsura
Production: Filmocom and Elena Iatsura, with Support from the Film Department of the Russian Ministry of Culture and the Hubert Bals Foundation 


Endnotes

1] I Fly to You In Memory (Ia k vam lechu vospominan'em,1977), And I Am With You Once Again… (I s vami snova ia…, 1980), and Autumn (Osen', 1982). 
2] In 1998, Khrzhanovskii made a short film The Stop (Ostanovka), together with Artem Mikhalkov. This was their graduation project at the VGIK (the workshop of Marlen Khutsiev).

3]Larisa Milukova. “Chetverka s pliusom,” Novaia gazeta (28-32 August 2005): 23.
4] See:Vladimir Sorokin. 4: Rasskazy. Stsenarii. Libretto. Moscow: Zakharov, 2005. 50-93.
5] Sorokin 69-70. All translations are my own.
6] Khrzhanovskii mentions this demand in his interview with Dmitrii Volchek for Radio “Freedom”.

 

Pictures courtesy Slovo

Il'ia Khrzhanovskii, 4 [Chetyre] (2004)

reviewed by Mark Lipovetsky©2005

09/10/05