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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Four and Men's Eyes
by Donald Levit

Disdaining even to clone stylish Se7en’s title trick, i.e., as 4our, the film is titled straight 4 and is nothing if not original. Written by painter and post-modernist author Vladimir Sorokin at its director’s request, this first feature for Ilya Khrzhanovsky is longish at two hours and six minutes, oddball and flawed enough to turn off many mainstream filmgoers. It is also close enough to the mark to have upset Russian authorities, and suggestively arresting in strange ways that will attract cinephiles and fuel unanswerable discussion.

The dark beauty comes early, in a curving living wood bar counter, but flowers later, in upward-angled fields topped by a sliver of sky silhouetting a walking female and, a bit too often, the unsettling Bosch-Bruegel-Cranach crone faces of Shutilovo peasants. Precisely what happens in between, why it happens and what it may mean, is not always certain, but, in the tradition of invitingly semi-allegorical films from Eastern Europe, the possibilities are intriguing.

Groups of four are here from the very pre-credit opening in that number of wolfish street dogs against four window-display manikins and scared by four sudden jackhammer claws and trucks. From prostitutes and clients in bed to fish tanks to living and dead sisters to troop transport planes, the number crops up throughout -- except in the initial story-setting of three characters, though perhaps a sleepy bartender is the fourth or else these individuals plus the whole ensemble itself, the total, complete the square.

Even outside under uniformly grey skies or swirling mists on black boggy earth or littered depleted industrial lands, little is open here, while crowded village huts, cheerless modern apartments and underground cold storage mazes lead inwards but to nothing spelled out except, perhaps, death. In the wee hours, three solitary beings wrap up their work, wander by chance into the same bar, cadge drinks, cigarettes and lights under three overhead lights, lie to each other, refuse invitations, and go their separate ways.

Khrzhanovsky has spoken of universal cloning, of “identicalness in the world” in the sense of mass culture in music and apparel. But, although scientific reproduction of exactly similar humans is mentioned and there are twin sisters, one is right to wonder how far this statement is to be taken at face value with regard to his film in which, aside from heavy destructive drinking, the one constant is that there is no constant and that fate is indeed fickle in Russia and everywhere.

Young prostitute Marina Kravchenko (Marina Vovchenko), drummer and piano-tuner Volodya (Sergey Shnurov), and wholesaler of old refrigerated meat Oleg (Yuri Laguta) elaborate convincing lies about themselves. Conveniently not carrying business cards, they become, respectively, a successful advertising agency boss, an organic chemist involved in the country’s semi-successful human cloning project -- forty incubators, forty-four years, four the ideal number -- and an official in the KGB building who supplies mineral water to the Kremlin.

They leave separately, surprisingly not to meet again in any way. For no apparent reason, Marina will be the only one to return and, however unconsciously, exercise some control over individual destiny. Equally randomly, her immediately subsequent adventure is the only one that is developed, but it goes on too long and repetitiously.

She cannot accompany Volodya, and he will not see her the following day but goes directly to a discotheque, listens to an older man talk of the significance of marine creatures, is picked up by police, charged with a vague Kafka-esque crime, and winds up a soldier parachuting into an unspecified war zone. Among dog statues in his apartment, Oleg is badgered by his obsessive housekeeper-cook father Mischa, then defends a dog in the underground meat lockers and meets his own abrupt roadside end because of a vagabond’s mutt.

Informed of the death of her twenty-four-year-old sister Zoya, Marina takes a train to the funeral. She spends several drunken mourning days with her vapid blonde twin sisters, the dead woman’s bereaved alcoholic boyfriend Marat (Konstantin Murzenko) and the otherwise all female villagers (playing themselves) of “metal scum” hags who stuff and sew dolls’ bodies and toothlessly chew bread into the pulp from which the sister made dolls’ faces for sale to tourists. (Multi-tasking seems not to work, for artist Zoya choked to death trying her hand at the chewing side of the business.)

One suspects there is some folksy humor here, and satire, and more than a sprinkle of cruelty, as there is in the un-retouched originals of many fairy tales. Such dark woodsy European sensibility is beyond us, but behind unnatural round piglets and piggy people, mountains of moonshine and nasty elderly nudity, senseless lives and deaths, a suicide and a suicidal mission, there is, however one takes it, plenty to set you thinking. 

(Released by Leisure Time Features; not rated by MPAA.)

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