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

reviewed by Natal'ia Sirivlia©2005


4 is Il'ia Khrzhanovskii’s debut film. He is the son of Andrei Khrzhanovskii, the most intellectual animator of the Soviet period. An ambitious and temperamental youth, Il'ia chose for his first film not just anybody’s script, but Vladimir Sorokin’s—the most scandalous writer of the post-Soviet period. The title of the film, according to the press release, was determined by the fact that “… the film was shot over four years. Part of the film was shot on the territory of Correctional Labor Camp 4 in the Mordovian village of Dubravlaga. Sergei Shnur, the performer of one of the major roles, was only able to get to Mordovia on the fourth attempt…,” etc. It’s possible to assume that the title of the film is nothing other than a show-off joke. And yet, the title contains a profound esoteric meaning: the filmmakers considered it very significant that the number 4 does not belong to the well-known register of scared numbers—1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 12, …—moreover, 

according to numerological canons … it represents resistance, an ideational subversion of ideas, and a desire to change existing rules. Individuals guided by the number 4 have difficulty in grasping an opposing point of view; they are marked by an almost maniacal self-confidence… To be ruled by 4 is to be characterized by a peculiar style of behavior, in some respects even strange. The number 4 symbolizes rebelliousness. (Press release)

As far as “ideational subversion of ideas,” “maniacal self-confidence,” “peculiar style,” and “rebelliousness” is concerned, everything is just fine with the filmmakers—with venerable Sorokin and youthful Khrzhanovskii. They have found each other. Reviewers with a penchant for wordplay have even written that 4 is “Sorokin taken to the fourth power” (Anton Dolin, Gazeta, 14 September 2004). If 4 were the fourth film to be based on a Sorokin script, there would be total numerological completeness. Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately), however, it is the third. But this does not hinder Khrzhanovskii from feeling proud of himself for belonging to the bright tradition that scandalously shocks and shakes foundations.

Insofar as we’re talking about traditions, the only successful screen adaptation of a Sorokin story seems to me to be Aleksandr Zel'dovich’s Moscow (2000). Because it was the first. Because it contains a lot of artistry: Leonid Desiatnikov’s music, Iurii Kharikov’s artistic design, Aleksandr Il'khovskii’s camerawork, as well as the roles played by Natal'ia Koliakanova, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Tat'iana Drubich, Aleksandr Baluev, Viktor Gvozditskii… Because the conflict stemming from an absence of meaning (central to all of Sorokin’s prose) was painfully and acutely experienced by the characters as a kind of pathology that is incompatible with life.

The Kopeck (2002), a stylized collection of Soviet-era anecdotes about a national make of car, became in the hands of director Ivan Dykhovichnyi a kind of free-wheeling, disrespectful skit (kapustnik). Viewers laughed at the dim-witted cops and security agents, the hairy provincials, the bloodthirsty proles and avant-garde masochists, and immediately forgot about them, just as by the following morning the latest television broadcast of Full House (Anshlag) or The Club of the Jolly and Quick-Witted (KVN) is forgotten.

 

The irrational world of 4, which Sorokin constructs in his works, is not distorted by any rudimentary humanism or by the healthy breath of folklore. This is a genuine Sorokin film—that is, it is simply nauseating. The young director in some respects even surpasses his teacher. Whereas the prudent classic, who has for a long time already—since The Queue and Pel'meni—undertaken a virtuoso vivisection of authoritative texts and myths, does not set his sights directly on reality, Khrzhanovskii, with youthful vigor, deconstructs and desemanticizes—that is, empties of meaning—the very texture of documentary film. He shoots a famous musician in the role of a musician, a real prostitute in the role of a prostitute, old country women in the role of old country women, stray dogs as stray dogs… At the same time, the director uses the actors’ genuinely living psycho-physicality to create some sort of totally abandoned installation, whose sole goal is the author’s narcissistic self-assertion: “Man, I’m cool!”

Everything begins with a lengthy long-shot: the camera is positioned at the height of a dog’s point of view as it lies on the chilly ground; the street with its sparkling shop windows is shot without any motion. Suddenly, from somewhere above, the steel tentacles of a road-construction machine come crashing down into the shot, right onto the poor animals, and begin to shatter the asphalt. Intolerable noise and thunder, and the dogs dash of whining… The viewer is jolted. The attraction has succeeded. “Coolness” is proved. Nothing else needs to be filmed. But the filming continues…

Someone named Oleg (Iurii Laguta)—a slightly frost-bitten businessman who deals in frozen meat—walks along a freezer compartment past carcasses hanging on meat-hooks. Stamped onto the carcasses are “1960,” “1962”… But it’s no big deal. The temperature here is minus 20 degrees. All one needs to do in order to check the quality of the meat is to boil up a couple of beef ribs: if it smells alright, the carcass can be bought.

In some dilapidated hall, crammed with a half dozen black pianos, a melancholic tuner (Sergei Shnurov) adjusts piano wires as he listens to the musings of a shaggy colleague, who mixes musical terms with obscenities.

At the same time, to the accompaniment of passionate groans coming from a porno video, Marina (Marina Vovchenko), a naked young woman, gets up from a mattress on which two guys are zonked out next to another representative of the oldest profession, puts on her panties, gets dressed. In response to her friend’s half-hearted protests—something like “Where you going? I'll tell the madam”—she answers: “Ah! Fuck it!” She takes her money and leaves the den of iniquity.

                

Subsequently all of them hook up in a late-night bar, drink vodka, grappa, tequila, curaçao, champagne, vodka again, and―with absolutely straight faces―make up total bullshit about themselves. Oleg claims that he works in the administration of the President, supplying the Kremlin with bottled water. According to Marina, she works in an ad agency that is currently trying to introduce into the Russian market a Japanese machine that assures a good mood in the workplace: simply plug it in and everyone in the office is infused with enthusiasm for their job. But the tuner tells the most intriguing story: he confesses that he works in a secret laboratory that is engaged in cloning. He claims that cloning has been going on in the USSR since 1949, that the optimal number for cloning is 4, that cloned quadruplets are housed in special nurseries, that clones with disabilities are settled in the countryside, and that there are villages populated entirely by twins, triplets, quadruplets—and all of them are ill…

Marina listens with an open mouth. In the post-midnight duel of two single males for the attentions of a single female, it is clear that Shnurov’s character is victorious; the irritated meat merchant quits the bar while the tuner—as befits a victor—offers Marina sex. But she has enough sex in her workplace; she wants the story about the clones to be continued. And so without coming to an agreement, the nocturnal visitors to the bar go their separate ways…

It is clear that everything that follows stems from this simple organic sketch—in which Shnurov takes the lead with his serious and detailed narration of “the attack of the clones” on the guardians of the special nursery near Irkutsk; in which Marina—a simple broad from the country—amusingly tries to pass herself off as a business-lady; in which Iurii Laguta plays their “straight man,” introducing an administrative, privileged solidity into this gathering of liars. Had the authors not aspired to a full-length feature film, 4 would have remained an entertaining short, able to count on a favorable reception at the Oberhausen or Mannheim festivals. But Khrzhanovskii’s ambitious nature craved more than this; he dreamt of worldwide fame, of laurels at the Cannes or Venice festivals. In fact, the film was screened at the 2004 Venice festival in the program “A Special View,” in a hall that was two thirds full. Our critics considered this a genuine triumph since “at the Venice premiere of Greenaway’s film there were approximately four times fewer spectators” (A. Dolin, Gazeta 14 September 2004).

And so a twenty-minute sketch was turned into a two-hour film. How? Simple: the heroes go their respective ways and each is followed separately. After leaving the bar, Oleg goes to an expensive restaurant where a smarmy waiter offers him the house specialty—“round piglets.” “There’s no such thing as ‘round piglets.’ I’ve dealt in meat for seven years!” “Just go to the kitchen and take a look.” He goes, and in the red—strangely infernal—kitchen, under a red cloth, lying side-by-side are four round piglets, which seem to have been inflated by a pump.
The tuner sets off for a nightclub, where he dances till he’s stupefied…. Then he wanders into the musicians’ room backstage, tries out the percussion instruments, and listens to an edifying monolog by the janitor, who is busy cleaning out aquariums containing tiny turtles and alligators. “You’re nobody. You can’t have a name. Take this turtle—it’s what it is and can’t change. But you, you’re not finished yet, and tomorrow you can become anything at all: prison dust, cannon fodder, a floor mat under the feet of a girl you love…” “But I have a choice. I can refuse to become any one of these …” “Do you mean suicide? That’s a palliative…” To confirm the fact that there are no real choices, cops arrest the hero on the street that very night; a crazy investigator has him charged with some senseless crime; and the tuner—like a patsy—gets tossed into jail.

Meanwhile, the meat merchant, upset by his unsuccessful attempt at flirting and the appearance of the round piglets, returns to the sterile atmosphere of his affluent home, where he’ll capriciously whine and stomp his feet at his loving father (Anatolii Adoskin), who removes his son’s shoes, feeds him steamed cutlets every day, and drives him crazy with his maniacal obsession with cleanliness and order.

The unifying idea is: “nobody is finished yet.” A person’s “I” is an ephemeral substance. It’s not just that the heroes try to run away from themselves, pretending to be someone other than who they are, but there is also some invisible power of destiny that pulls them into the maw of a Kafkaesque hell, where it is impossible to be or to remain within one’s own self. After formulating this simple maxim, the director loses interest in the fates of his male characters and focuses for the most part on Marina.

When she awakens in the morning and listens to her answering machine, Marina learns of the death of her sister, Zoika. She sets off for the station, takes a seat on a train, and travels to a village with a strange name, Polygon. In response to the repeated question posed by her alcoholic fellow travelers—“Why the fuck you goin’ to the polygon?” (the shot of pouring vodka and posing the question is repeated twice)—Marina calmly answers: “The doctor prescribed it. Just fire a grenade-launcher once and the stress disappears immediately.” At this point a system of strange repetitions emerges in the narrative structure of the film. It’s as if the director is hinting: “Oh, this is no simple village that we’re going to!” 

And so, in one form or another, the film, together with Marina, crosses the border of the Moscow Ring Road and transports us to the limitless expanses our mysterious Motherland. Mysterious first of all to the director himself. He really shouldn’t have undertaken this dangerous journey!

Marina gets off the train at some god-forsaken station, energetically strides through the mud past barbed wire, cheerless fields, and endless garbage dumps, and finally ends up at a graveyard… She’s late. The coffin has already been buried and an old peasant woman wails over the freshly-dug grave: “Oh! For whom have you abandoned me, my dearest! Oh! Bury me nearby in this raw earth!...” Several old women—one in an absurd dog-fur coat, others in old-fashioned plush jackets—shake their heads, shed tears, add their wails… Also present are two young sisters, each resembling Marina like two drops of water. Which means that together with the deceased Zoika, there were four of them. Aha!—concludes the perceptive viewer—are they not that very enigmatic quartet of clones about whom the tuner had lied with such inspiration back in the capital? Everything seems to come together: a village, the Polygon, inhabited entirely by old women, and in this kingdom of the aged, four identical girls from who only knows where…

The director uses genuine family resemblances (Marina’s sisters are played by her real life sisters, Irina and Svetlana Vovchenko) to create a phantom that totally replaces reality. Subsequently, anything can happen in this film. After all, these aren’t real people living in the village; this is damaged raw material, artificial and incomplete beings without a destiny, without will; beings with superimposed gender markings but lacking reason—just like the dolls that are collectively sewn in this village and covered with masticated bread. The deceased Zoika led this process: only she knew how to make various mugs for these dolls out of chewed-up chunks of bread; the old women simply sew the carcasses and chew up the bread. One time Zoika decided to chew up some of the bread herself, she gagged, and … died. So now the entire village is left without a means of subsistence, a deplorable fact that is discussed at the wake, which first turns into a scandal, and then into a disgraceful scene during which the old women begin to tear apart, throw at each other, and obscenely grope the faceless dolls covered in chewed-up bread that are hanging everywhere in the hut.

Disgusted, the sisters leave the hut to barf on the street. Zoika’s drunken husband, now a widower (played by famous scriptwriter Konstantin Murzenko, who clearly doesn’t have a clue how to play his role, other than to demonstrate the symptoms of acute alcoholic psychosis), also runs out of the hut, carrying with him to the cow-shed several dolls that have not yet been torn apart. In the shed, he addresses the dolls as “kiddies” and puts them to sleep, after which he, too, falls asleep. And when he awakens he finds that the “kiddies” have been ripped apart by a bunch of hungry, local dogs. Once again, universal wailing and grieving… The messenger for these events is a frail, sharp-nosed, little old lady dressed in a bright blue adolescent’s coat. She spreads her arms wide open and cries out “Oh, what misfortune, what misfortune!” She races to Marina’s hut where she straight off, in a business-like way, drinks a glass of moonshine, pours a second, and brings it to the sleeping woman, announcing that the dogs have ripped apart the last of the finished dolls (this scene of the running little old lady and the two glasses of moonshine will be repeated later in a different context). Now there is absolutely nothing to sell the buyers when they arrive.

This whole doll-production tragedy is entirely the product of the brain. Chewed-up bread as the material for stuffing can be explained, it seems to me, by Sorokin’s constant predilection for various kinds of soft and viscous substances that are somehow related to the culinary process—from his “undercooked pel'meni” to “vomit” or “shit.” The dolls themselves are a metaphor for the clones: artificial constructions that even lack (by force of circumstances) individualized “mugs.” And this made-up story is further developed in the same conditional tone.

Following Marina’s wise advice, the inconsolable widower tries to renew the village’s business: “Make a face-mask of some sympathetic looking kid and use it to make mugs for the dolls.” The problem is, however, that there are no kids in the village. So the widower goes to the city, sees a kid with his parents at a station, and offers money—67 rubles—for the innocent task of making a face-mask, but gets punched in the mug by the infuriated father. In despair he makes a mask of his own face, renders the dolls in his own image, becomes horrified at the result (the four dolls lying in a row with identical “mugs” are simply another instantiation of the cloned “quadruplets”), and hangs himself—that is, he becomes a doll himself: his dangling feet, which don’t touch the ground, an unsubtle echo of the dangling extremities of the dolls that are hanging all over the set.

I should point out, however, that the fate of the widower interests the authors only slightly more than, for example, the fate of the tuner who ends up in prison. The tuner’s narrative line is reduced in the second half of the film to a couple of symbolic episodes: dressed in a padded-jacket (telogreika), he marches with other inmates across the yard of Correctional Labor Camp 4; dressed in camouflage fatigues together with a column of similar sacrificial victims, he boards a plane that will take him to some war. He was a musician, became “prison dust,” and finally becomes “cannon fodder”—everything as it was predicted. What is there to show? The widower, too, disappears from view for long periods of time; his story is indicated by a faded dotted-line on the periphery of the film’s on-screen events. At the center is a powerful freak-show attraction called “The Idiocy of Village Life.”

On the surface, everything in the village of Polygon is just like an ordinary Russian provincial village: impassable mud, a destroyed church, a cow-shed filled to the ankles with liquefied manure, grey huts, strong pens for the cattle, and a dozen hardy, old women. It’s easy to imagine that each of them has her own hut, garden, some sort of household, with children and grandchildren off in the city, each with her own individual personality and a separate, private life. But on-screen these old women are an indivisible whole, a collective body that is still hearty but grown senile. And all together they sit around and chew up bread for producing their dolls; they keep on sewing the carcasses that no one needs any longer, singing the “Song of the Motherland” to make the work go easier; during holidays they quarrel and curse, eat fatty meat in a disgusting way and swill moonshine; when they get drunk, they shake their shriveled bare breasts in front of each other and finally fall asleep in a heap on the floor… They are so frightening in their drunken bacchanalias that the young sisters are simply nauseated at the sight. And the prostitute Marina, who has already seen much in her lifetime, keeps repeating in confusion: “Everything is so incomprehensible here.”

It really is impossible to understand anything here. The film’s aggressive use of the old village women’s texture co-exists with a total blindness to the structure of their real world, their daily lives, their daily activities, to traditional connections between life and death, to work and food, to love and reproduction. For the director, the old women are no different from the dolls covered with “chewed-up bread”—it is as if their inner world has been deliberately chewed-up, transformed into something viscous, while their external actions have been totally subordinated to the needs of the author-puppet master.

The same is true of the youthful sisters. What happened between them? Why can’t Marina forgive the deceased Zoika? Why, as she claims, did she “have to sleep in train stations, have an abortion, and not even an abortion, but have the baby cut out in pieces”? Why do the two other sisters suddenly grab each other by the hair and what do they mean when, in response to Marina’s confused question, they say “We didn’t divide up the money. Or the guy”? What money? What guy? The sordid details utterly fail to cohere into a biography or a destiny. But then, what kind of destiny can clones have?

Everything here is smoke and shadows, senseless and absurd. Elementary links between cause and effect are missing. Nothing is clear; there’s nothing to track. The action hopelessly marches in place, while the organic types struggle with all their might against the made-up “force of circumstances.” It seems that after programmatically purging the film of any natural logic of life, the authors themselves lose all control over their narrative. And the only way they can somehow tie together all of the threads is to increase endlessly the metaphors, analogies, associations that keep spreading out, interweaving, and penetrating in all directions of the unraveling fabric of the film.

The scene in which the old women chew up bread (labor) visually rhymes with the scene in which they voraciously and unappetizingly gobble meat. The conclusion: chewing, gobbling, pulverizing are the main vital function of an organism. In this same scene, the pink ribbon that was tied to the slaughtered pig finds it way into Marina’s braid. It might appear that the subject has something to do with the mythologeme of victims. But victims belong to a different opera, to the reality where the numbers 1, 2, and 3 rule; where victims are offered up to Someone in the name of something. In the world of these “quadruplets,” however, everything is so logically constructed and moves along a horizontal axis, but with a palpable downward inclination. So, what conclusion can be drawn? That the very process of eating, of consuming meat, is identified here with the consumption of the female body, with Marina’s labor (that is, with prostitution), which is treated accordingly as devouring those like one’s self? This analogy is immediately confirmed by the scene in which one of the old women throws the head of the slaughtered pig into the pigpen. So, animal flesh is no different from human flesh. Selling meat is associated with selling bodies (and probably souls, too, since the tuner in his legend is directly involved in constructing this subhuman reality). The artificial “round piglets” are an obvious analogy to the people-clones, who are metaphorized in the dolls covered with chewed-up bread, ripped apart by the dogs, mixed with dirt and—considering that the scene takes place in the cow-shed—manure, that is, with shit. No matter how you look at it, everything comes down to one thing: “Life is senseless. Humans are shit.” But this needs to be proven. Sorokin has worked on proving this assertion throughout his entire literary career, Khrzhanovskii throughout his two-hour-long film.

The conclusion of this peasant-doll drama comes in a pathetic episode that resists unambiguous interpretation. After a huge, apocalyptic drinking binge, Marina finally prepares to leave. She goes to Zoika’s former hut, puts on her city shoes, and suddenly notices the bare feet of Zoika’s widower, who is hanging in the next room. In the same room lie the dolls with their identical “mugs”; here, too, is a photograph of the sisters sitting next to each other like four temptresses. Marina becomes furious, feverishly tossing all of the unfinished dolls—arms, legs, “mugs”—into a giant sack. She drags the sack to her sister’s grave, dumps everything on it, and burns it all. And into the fire she throws that photograph. What is this? Drunken hysterics? Marina’s protest against the senselessness of village life that has gotten to her? Belated revenge against the sister she has not forgiven? Or a symbolic revolt by an unfinished being against a cruel and irresponsible maker? Only God knows… Most likely it is simply an effective gesture by a director who has finally become lost in all the symbols and metaphors. It all has to end somehow, so let it all burn!

So it’s over. Quickly tying together all of the other narrative lines—the tuner is sent off to Chechnya, the meat trader to the other world (he crashes his jeep trying to avoid a black dog that darts out towards the car’s wheels; a passerby steals the wristwatch from the corpse and runs like a coward along the deserted road towards the horizon)—the director completes his misanthropic canvas with a close-up shot of the old woman-messenger, who, to the musical accompaniment of the song “Black Cat,” promises coquettishly: “E-e-e-e, there’ll be no luck…”

 

What can one say? All of the film’s shortcomings—its nihilism, artificiality, all-pervasive spirit of entropy; its lack of meaning and internal coherence; its reduction of the complex to the elementary; its structure (which is reduced to the viscous absence of structure in Sorokin’s eternal shit)—immediately become accomplishments if looked at from the point of view of how well the film captures the artistic world of the famous postmodernist author. The experiment called 4 has one indisputably positive result: it is now clear that a consistent insertion of Sorokin’s aesthetics into cinema destroys the language of film. It is possible to play with the destruction of meaning on the level of plot, text, or gags; but no rhetorical figures or tropes can save a work from deadly boredom if the fundamental law of cinema is broken: the flow of images across the screen is interesting to the viewer only if he understands them—that is, in following the author, the viewer establishes rather than destroys the meaningful ties that link frames and episodes, between the visible and invisible, between complexly organized iconic signs and internally meaningful sense.


But the language of film is not universal. Beyond film lies the wide expanse of experimental video-art, where such destructive gestures are always welcome. I’m not qualified to judge 4 by the criteria of “contemporary art,” but I very much hope that all future attempts to translate Sorokin’s prose into the language of moving images will occur precisely in this other space. Let’s just not use the word “cinema” to describe it.

PS: And it really isn’t worthwhile to claim (as is written in the press release) that in 4 one can feel “the undistorted breath of the Motherland.” Why write this? There’s already enough falsehood in our lives!


Natal'ia Sirivlia, Film critic ( Novyi mir)
Translated by Vladimir Padunov


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, Iuri 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 


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

reviewed by Natal'ia Sirivlia©2005

09/10/05