A prime recent discovery on the international festival circuit, 30-year-old Ilya Khrzhanovsky's first feature 4 is an immediate attention grabber. A quartet of dogs lounge around a beautifully framed and lit nighttime street when suddenly . . . War of the Worlds! Or rather, Midnight in Moscow: Anything can happen.
This self-assured debut, directed from a script by Russian avant-garde novelist Vladimir Sorokin, continues its nocturne with a series of vaguely menacing non sequiturs. A guy views the flayed carcasses hanging in a huge meat locker; a tangle of warm bodies resolves itself into a stone-faced hooker (topless dancer Marina Vovchenko) extricating herself from the cuddle puddle and taking off. Uncanny torpor carries over into a quieter sort of directorial tour de force. The hooker, the meat dealer, and a skinhead piano tuner turn up around closing time at the same entropic bar, and, after making small talk about dogs, regale each other with fantastic lies regarding their identities and occupations.
Orchestrated by Khrzhanovsky as a series of long, static shots, the deadpan bullshitting goes on until one character launches into a description of an interracial homosexual orgy and another storms out in a huff, retiring to an empty restaurant that serves specially bred round piglets. A residue of drunken irrationality and the specter of genetic modification hang over the remainder of the movie: Learning of her sister's death, the hooker boards a train filled with sly peasant types gulping vodka and gobbling eggs, and, arriving in the sticks, slogs across a muddy wasteland to her home village of Shutilovo.
Although Khrzhanovsky has several tricks up his sleeve, 4 's most provocative quality is its ironic surplus of beauty. Shot in lush near-monochromatic color, Shutilovo might be a suburb of the Zone from Tarkovsky's Stalker. The town, populated almost entirely by ancient crones (Shutilovo's real-life residents), manufactures child-sized dolls. Singing Stalin-era hymns, this gaggle of grannies chews bread that is used to create the doll's facesor, at least, it used to be used. Turns out the hooker's deceased sister had the secret of giving the dolls their individual expressions and she took it with her to the grave. Then it's back to Moscow, although not before the death of one old lady's pig allows for an inebriated feast that some in the home audience evidently found highly offensive.
Sorokin had already been targeted as a pornographer by Russian nationalists and 4 evidently added insult to injury. Everyone connected with it was physically attacked or victimized by vandals, according to Khrzhanovsky, who maintains that the movie in no way comments on post-Soviet reality. Although this grotesque near-allegory does resist parsing, its bar-stool revelations recall Pablo Picasso's one-liner "art is the lie that tells the truth." At least one of the alcohol-infused lies turns out to be true, and 4 is nothing if not arty.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.