If your art film tastes lean toward orderliness and tidy metaphors, you could spend the two hours of Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky's fearless and mesmerizing debut feature, "4," cataloging foursomes. There are the four whimpering dogs on a rainy street, the four souls in that after-hours bar, the four sisters who come from a small village of hell-raising, doll-making old women, the quartet of planes heading off to war, etc. But what's the fun in counting when Khrzhanovsky has a murkily beautiful gift for entropic imagery to take in?
He isn't even as committed to the numerology thing as, say, a determined list lover like Peter Greenaway. Rather, "4" embraces unconscious logic, not to mention offering up a bold, bleak and coarsely funny tableau of capitalistic emptiness, human anguish, boisterous humor and the questionable carnivorous pleasures of round piglets. (On that last one, the less said the better.)
In fact, the mechanized jolt in the opening shot that disrupts the wailing canines is clue enough that this movie is out to slap awake your senses. But it also acts as a thematic starting gun of sorts, initiating this film's preoccupation with toggling between brutalizing dehumanization and Old World despair. Indeed, thereafter, industrial clanging and whirring feels like a soundtrack constant, as are the dogs, who track the film's nomadic journeys like a barking chorus.
The human equation is set up in a great, exhilaratingly talky scene in which we're introduced to three members of modern Russian society — Oleg (Yuri Laguta), a middle-class butcher; Volodya (Sergey Shnurov), a piano tuner; and Marina (Marina Vovchenko), a prostitute — who meet as strangers late one night at a bar. Over plenty of cigarettes and a smattering of alcoholic beverages from around the world — because globalization is the newest addiction — the meat guy presents himself as a political insider, the musician tells stories of being a secret government clone expert and the prostitute says she's a successful ad exec.
At one point, Volodya casually mentions that no culture has ever held the number 4 sacred, but it's obvious from this genial gab session that for these folk, the truth of their lives isn't worth worshiping either. Once they leave the cozy social confines of the watering hole, their realities take them in wildly different directions and, in Khrzhanovsky's hands, often into the realm of absurdist comedy.
Marina's tale gets the most screen time, though, most likely because Khrzhanovsky and screenwriter Vladimir Sorokin (the current bad boy of Russian literature) see the gray, dilapidated countryside of her character's upbringing — where she treks to attend her sister's funeral, only to get caught up in her village's soap opera — as ripe for the earthiest kind of peasant humor and shock-value garishness.
It's in this overlong segment that "4" finds some of its most bewildering highs and disturbing lows, which will be relative depending on your penchant for watching toothless crones play profane, drunken bullies, removing their clothes in the midst of a ritualized pig feast.
There's always the possibility that for those steeped in the nuances of Russian culture and history, Khrzhanovsky is saying volumes about the peculiarly hopeful and sad state of his homeland. But most important, for the adventurous moviegoer, it's more than apparent throughout this inventive, hypnotic and queasily funny portrayal of socioeconomic chaos that this director is a talent to watch.
MPAA rating: Unrated
A Leisure Time Features release. Director IIya Khrzhanovsky. Screenplay Vladimir Sorokin, based on an idea by Sorokin, Khrzhanovsky. Cinematography Alisher Khamidkhodshaev, Aleksandr Ilkhovsky, Shador Berkechi. Editor Igor Malakhov.
Running time 2 hours, 6 minutes. In Russian with English subtitles.
Exclusively at Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas, 7907 Beverly Blvd. at Fairfax Avenue, L.A. (323) 655-4010