Opening sonic assault of "4" will unsettle even the most blase heavy metal or horror movie fan: Four claw hammers simultaneously smash the ground at earsplitting volume, barely missing a quartet of dozing dogs. Weird pic has flat stretches, but its comedy, sound design and uncanny atmosphere will turn on auds with a taste for oddball fare.

Opening sonic assault of “4” will unsettle even the most blase heavy metal or horror movie fan: Four claw hammers simultaneously smash the ground at earsplitting volume, barely missing a quartet of dozing dogs. Thereafter, this seriously weird pic has a few flat stretches, but its bawdy comedy, bravura sound design and uncanny atmosphere will turn on auds with a taste for deeply oddball fare and baffle others. Co-written by cult novelist Vladimir Sorokin, this debut feature by young Russian helmer Ilya Khrzhanovsky could gain acclaim through further exposure at adventurous fests.

As per title, the number four crops up repeatedly throughout pic’s meandering story. For instance, the first major scene brings together four characters in a late night bar, all of whom, apart from the drowsy bartender, pretend to be somebody they’re not.

Prostitute Marina (Marina Vovchenko, a pole dancer in real life) announces she works in advertising. Piano-tuner Volodya (Sergei Shnurov) convincingly spins tales about his nonexistent research in organic chemistry. Oleg (Yuri Laguta) says he works as an administrator for the president’s office, when he’s really a businessman dealing in meat.

After this slightly too drawn-out bull session, the four go their separate ways in a Moscow and environs that looks like the real thing but operates according to its own dream logic.

Made over four years, which necessitated use of three cameramen, “4” occasional shows signs of wear and tear in the continuity department. But then the story is so far out most viewers will be too preoccupied trying to figure out just what the hell is going on — and whether there’s a some symbolic hide-and-seek game going on with all the fours — to notice.

The numerological device is reminiscent of Peter Greenaway’s “Drowning by Numbers” and “A Zed and Two Noughts,” but done with less intellectual preening and filtered here through Sorokin’s Slavic, absurdist imagination. Result is much like other enigmatic recent Russian efforts like Alexei Muradov’s “All the Truth About Schleps” and Alexander Sukorov’s wackier work before “Russian Ark.”

Technically, high-stylized pic shows genuine flair. Odd camera angles (favoring extreme long shots and over-intimate close-ups) add to the unsettling atmosphere. But Kirill Vasilenko’s industrial-noise suffused sound design is the real standout here, an ever-present wash of clicks, buzzes, animal noises and whines that grows progressively creepier, like the sound of approaching mechanical destruction.

4

Russia

Production

A Filmocom production with the participation of the Russian Federation Ministry of Culture, with support of the Hubert Bals Fund and Rotterdam Film Festival. (International sales: Slovo, Moscow.) Produced by Yelena Yatsura. Executive producer, Natalia Kochetova. Directed by Ilya Khrzhanovsky. Screenplay, Vladimir Sorokin, based on an idea by Sorokin, Khrzhanovsky.

Crew

Camera (color), Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev, Aleksandr Ilkhovsky, Shandor Berkechi; editor, Igor Malakhov; production designer, Shavkat Abdusalamov; costumes, Alexandra Timofeva; sound (Dolby Digital), Kirill Vasilenko. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Venice Days), Sept. 10, 2004. Running time: 124 MIN.

With

Marina Vovchenko, Irina Vovchenko, Svetlana Vovchenko, Sergei Shnurov, Yuri Laguta, Konstantin Murzenko, Aleksei Khvostenko, Anatoli Adoskin, Leonid Fiodorov, Gennady Votrin.

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