Thematic surrealism is a term that can aptly describe this fascinating Russian indie written by Vladimir Sorokin and directed by Ilya Khrzhanovsky. "4" (AKA "Chetyre") (2005) brings to mind the excellent number-themed Peter Greenaway film "Drowning by Numbers" (1988). Of course, Greenaway's film excels by a huge margin in terms of creativity and execution, but "4" certainly deserves its fair share of notice.
The number 4 is staring at you in practically every frame of the film. In a rather strange but subtly profound beginning, on a cold night on a desolate street in the city, four stray dogs, suddenly become alert and seconds later escape from the place, squealing, as four legs of a giant machine used to drill holes on the road (possibly for repair work) descend down near them! This amazing beginning immediately grabs our attention and the action (or lack of it) shifts to a nearby bar where the three primary characters (already somewhat introduced in three small scenes) happen to arrive in the late hours to order drinks. The sleepy bartender is the only other person present there (four again!) Over a couple of brews and cigarettes the three get engaged in a rather outlandish conversation that manages to hook us audiences and make us their interested listeners. Tall tales are exchanged; it is clear that they are lies.
The piano player/tuner Vladimir (Sergey Shnurov) claims to be working as a genetic engineer with a team involved in cloning and claims that clones or doubles, as he calls them, were, and are being made in sets of four twins. He further adds that a lot of experiment results in the form of human clones exist among them, in society and are distributed among some slums near the city! Oleg (Yuri Laguta), a seller of old, dead meat, claims to sell spring water to the officials at the Kremlin and adds that he works closely with President Putin enough to know his and his wife's drinking habits! The only female present there, Marina (Marina Vovchenko) is clearly a prostitute as introduced in an earlier scene, but claims to be in advertising, helping sell a Japanese invention that increases the productivity of workers! Of course, the trio appears to take each other's stories with a pinch of salt and disperse. Only things take a bizarre turn when these fantastical yarns, more specifically, Vladimir's begin to manifest in their realities like a nightmare come true..!
Ilya Khrzhanovsky steers clear of making any explicit references, yet constructs a film that acts like a satire or even an exaggerated parable emphasizing on existing issues in contemporary Russia. A significant portion of the film plays out like a half-asleep weird dream shifting between ground reality and exaggerated excess, and the remainder like a minimalist humanistic drama. It's a unique blend in film and it certainly makes "4" a different breed of cinema from a majority of others. The surrealism itself is not the Bunuel-esque in-your-face or pure, but it clearly distinguishes itself from the rational aspects.
The aforementioned thematic device keeps you engaged in a clever little spotting game, as various objects, notices, numbers, signboards, etc. appear to somehow hint at the number four in some form or the other. There are some nuanced scenes that satirize certain traits of the characters as well as the Russian sociopolitical situation. The second part of the film, post the long bar conversation is what makes most of the film, and Ilya Khrzhanovsky freewheels into a narrative technique that flip-flops between jarring and captivating! The common surrealistic device of a recurring motif is used to a disquietingly funny effect in the scene of Marina's train journey.
The latter half of "4" takes place in Marina's village. The cinematography here is stupendous when it captures the breathtaking country landscapes and the bleak, foggy and watery surroundings to a mesmerizing effect. These shots are reminiscent of the dilapidation shown in Andrei Tarkovsky's magnificent "Stalker" (1979). Too bad though, that in an act of self-indulgence, the camera takes a life of its own, shakes a lot to a point of giddiness and zooms in to capture awkward and unnecessary close-ups, to the extent of even blurring the image to disappointing levels. It is the final half hour though, that somewhat overstays its welcome in an otherwise engrossing film.
The proceedings in Marina's village turn out to be an excessively bawdy and gross-out affair with long shots and disconcerting close-ups of a huge gang of old crones who seem to be the only inhabitants of the place other than some three youngsters. These old ladies are constantly loud and vulgar, engaging in drunken feasting and brawling even when in mourning; they undress and tease each other's sagging anatomies, run across the neighbourhood bawling and singing out loud, and for a living, make dolls out of bread that they chew and spit out! In one bitingly amusing sequence amidst the chaos though, the severed head of a giant pig is thrown in the sty of some smaller pigs for them to feast on! As one girl among them rightly describes, it is indeed a madhouse!
Khrzhanovsky also criminally concentrates only on Marina's episode and neglects the characters of Oleg and Vladimir later, although Vladimir's yarn is the primary focus of the story. Oleg only appears twice later and reappears towards the very end, while Vladimir more or less disappears. Any attempts to defend this problem with the film are only excuses to mask the deficient writing. The blatant sidelining wouldn't matter if Vladimir wasn't given so much importance in the film's riveting first hour. A lot of time is spent in making some scenes unnecessarily and frustratingly long, especially in the aforementioned final half hour. The proceedings don't go anywhere; they just stay there and revel in their cacophony. The writers could've instead tried incorporating more ideas and expanded on the proceedings in the lives of the other two characters.
Flaws do disappoint but the larger effect prevails; you know you have seen something refreshingly original and daring. You know you have witnessed some real fine acting and have had a considerably involving audio-visual experience that boasts of some memorable images and excellent sound design. "4" is a true-blue Russian film that celebrates Vodka-drinking like no other! It has a script that could've been better, but nevertheless, one that's quirky as well as clever. So, of course, this one's certainly recommended. Films like these don't come out very often.