Sunday, May 2, 2010

4 (2005)

"You forget what country you're living in."

So three people get together in a bar at 3:00 a.m. Add the sleepy Asian bartender and it's four people. Oleg is a meat salesman; he buys years-old stashes of frozen stuff and sells them further east. But he tells his fellow barflies that he delivers bottled water to the Kremlin and has met President Putin. Marina is a prostitute who we first see waking up from a foursome. But she tells her fellow barflies that she sells a new Japanese wave-device that energizes office workers. Volodya is a onetime musician who now tunes pianos for a living. But he tells Oleg, Marina and the bartender that he's been working for a top-secret Russian cloning program that dates back to the time of Stalin. There are thousands of clones alive in the country today, he says, often born in multiples, with four proving the most viable unit of production. But he tells progressively more outrageous stories of sexual debauchery, too many to be believed. But something in his story strikes a nerve in Marina.

The drinkers go their separate ways. Oleg goes to a restaurant where he questions the "Round Piglet" selection on the menu and learns that it's the literal truth. Volodya goes to a nightclub and dances the rest of the night away, only to be grabbed off the street by FSB agents. Marina goes home and goes to sleep, but in the morning there's a message on her answering machine from her old home town. Her sister Zoya has died -- one of her three sisters. The two still living are bottle blondes now, but it looks like they may all have been quadruplets, and the three living women are played by real-life sisters (all willing to be nude, by the way).

Their home town is a hellish dump consisting of the sisters, a gaggle of peasant hags, and one crazy man. Their local industry is a line of handmade, anatomically correct and butt-ugly dolls stuffed with pre-chewed bread. The crones are the sort of people whom, in an American film, you'd expect to be eating other people or sacrificing them to Satan. Instead, they drink themselves into oblivion with local moonshine, swear like sailors and tease that poor crazy man unmercifully. Marina and her sisters seem like the exceptions to the barbaric rule, but how exceptional are they? What was Volodya arrested for? Why is Oleg so concerned with the origins of Round Piglets, and why does he change his rule against marketing ground meat by the end of the picture?

I answer "I don't know" to all of the above, and I don't think writer Vladimir Sorokin and director Ilya Khrzhanovsky have a straight answer in mind for any of these questions. Their film is an exploration of Russia as an unstable state of mind, a place where people can imagine that stories like Volodya's might be true. My epigraph is what Volodya tells the others when they first question his tale about the secret "doubling" program, and the impression the filmmakers create is of a place of such extremes that anything might well be happening. Their image of a dystopian present may be why 4 was reportedly banned in Russia for a while, though a more likely reason is Oleg's pretend-gossip about Putin's wife being an alcoholic. It certainly does serve up an appalling portrait of the Russian countryside and its peasantry. If those old women are the salt of the earth, it's the sort of salt the Romans sowed into the soil of Carthage.

The whole "4" thing is little more than a gimmick. The credits occupy the four corners of the screen. Oleg sees four Round Piglets at that restaurant. A small fleet of four trucks show up occasionally. Voldoya ends up drafted for military service and is last seen loaded into one of four transport planes. But the movie is less about the number four (a number that Volodya claims has no previous mythological significance) than it is about consumption: drinking and eating, often to excess and in disgusting detail. The message seems to be that we don't really know what we're consuming, or even what's in some of those consumer goods. How many people who buy those dolls know that they're made partly from used food? Is what we eat in restaurants naturally raised, factory farmed, cloned or worse? The peasant women slaughter a pig, devour it messily, than feed the head to the other pigs? Are they destined for "mad pig" disease? Do they have it already? That scene may be symbolic in the broadest sense, to the extent that Sorokin and Krzhanovsky want to show us a society in which the people are, in a way, consuming themselves. Now that I think of it, I'm surprised that there is no cannibalism in the movie, given all the opportunities. Maybe the filmmakers thought that'd be too obvious.

4 is an impressionistic film that probably shouldn't be judged on the coherence of its narrative. It's a grotesque satire of a nation that's no less barbaric for being rid of Bolshevism and may well be more so now that everyone's free to exploit everyone and everything. I'm not saying that the movie has any communist leanings, but it doesn't have capitalist leanings, either. I don't know if the creators think that things have been better or could be better, but it's pretty clear that they think things suck right now. I'd recommend it to people interested in seeing and hearing dissident points of view about Russia, but I wouldn't make it the only Russian film from Putin's time to watch. I'd be interested in films that are at least more realistic if not more positive, in order to get a more balanced cinematic account of the country.

I couldn't find an embeddable trailer online, but here's the opening scene of the film, featuring four dogs, four excavators and those four trucks I mentioned, uploaded to YouTube by baldachyn.

1 comment:

Aylmer said...

I saw most of this on SBS TV last year without knowing what it was and was totally transfixed. Thanks for the education.