Three people meet in a bar, all trying to get away from their own realities. They stay for a while for some general banter and cock-and-bull stories before they go back out to their own bleak realities. A place where life might not be as nice or even interesting as they made it seem.
Most places you'll be able to find this film under the title of "4", but recently I've learned some Russian and I quickly became intrigued by the word "Chetyre", meaning "4". It just rolled off so oddly on my tongue. When I later found a Russian film with the title "Chetyre" (which actually is the title I first heard) I just had to see it. Moronic reasons, sure, but I also got interested in this little film on other levels eventually as well.
I think you can split this film into several parts, but I prefer to just splice it in two. The first "half" of the film mostly tells the story of how three people randomly meet at a bar one night. They start to tell each other about their lives and what they do for a living. One of the men talks about delivering mineral water to important people such as the president, the young woman works with some sort of new appliance from China, and finally the other man works in genetic cloning, or "doubling" as it's called in the Russian industry. He continues to tell how there are different versions of doubles, and believes there to be about 6000 healthy doubles and 19 000 sick doubles around. After this short but interesting meeting they part ways and step back into their everyday lives that might not be at all how they described them in the bar.
The second half starts right about here. We get to know these three characters more closely and see what they really do, as well as what kind of people they are. Most of the film focuses on the life of the young woman. We follow her to the funeral of her sister, Zoya, out on the countryside, and through the wake in a small community with old, toothless ladies. This little community has been managing for a long time by making and selling dolls, but now that the girl who made the masks for the dolls has passed away they're in a crisis. A young man takes most harm from the loss and is trying to deal with it, while attempting to find a way to create masks without her. The old ladies are far from worried. Instead they spend their entire days drinking, eating pigs and being general swines. Our lead lady and her other two sisters are there to act as a reaction and response to everything for us.
This is a hard film to analyze, and I have yet to find a definite answer to what things mean. What has a meaning and what doesn't? Is the number 4 as important as you might think?Does it come from the fact that the man talks about 4 doubles, that are called Type-4? Or that he says that the number 4 is a number without any religious attachment in the past? Is it that it's really 4 characters - the three people at the bar and us, the audience? There are things that come in 4 in the film, but is that just a coincident? The director has said that the title only comes from the fact that it took 4 years to write, but then I've heard different reasons from the writer (who certainly must've written it before it was directed for 4 years, right?). The significance of the number 4 remains a mystery, unless you want to create your own interpretation of it.
Another thing to analyze is what the dogs symbolize. From the first minute we realize that dogs are somehow part of it all - and in a great, surprising opening scene at that. In the bar scene one of them say that dogs are closer to God, and maybe that's all there is to it? And does the number 4 yet again come into play here?
Analyze all you want. As I see a lot of post-modernism in the film, ranging all the way to dadaism, it's impossible to say that there is a definite answer to everything. I don't doubt there things are there for a reason, but I also think the film intentionally wants to be confusing and not always make sense. One thing is for sure, it gives off a vibe of a film that is somewhere between realism and surrealism without ever completely becoming one or the other. Some people who are more used to the Russian culture than me have said that the film is very realistic, and while watching it I didn't think that was true. Thinking back at it, I can't remember much that actually was unrealistic about it. This alone is interesting to me, and makes the film worth watching.
One of the most talked about things about this film is how the old ladies are acting. This is something that has split the audience into two camps. One camp thinks these scenes are extremely gross, shocking and repulsive, while the other camp thinks it's not really shock, and maybe even more towards black comedy. I'm more of the latter. While the scenes of old, toothless babushkas do show them drink heavily, eat lots of meat in a gross manner, and eventually showing them undressing each other and flopping about with their breasts. I still think that it's not so much shocking as it is weird and comedic. And most likely intentionally so. I could stretch it to "awkward", too, depending on who is next to you in the couch.
So what the fuck does it all mean? I keep coming back to this because it's impossible not to when a film is structured this way. There is definitely some sort of existialism tied to it, and I was fond of one interpretation I heard that described it as "anti-suicidal". Suicides in some form or another is a recurring theme, so it's not impossible. The film might also just try to show how people seek ways to escape in a hard culture. Either is fine by me, to be honest.
Now, let's step away from meanings for a bit. Let's talk about the style of the film. It is without a doubt a very striking, visual film. Even when it's gritty and realistic, it still manages to feel like something more. The opening scene alone is great, and shows right off the bat how the film is somewhere between real and surreal. One thing that did bother me a bit was that the dogs always seemed worried. It was part of the film's nature, but I also feel maybe it was because of the camera crew - they did at times look behind the camera, so it was hard to stay in the movie at those times. This wasn't just there in the dog scenes. At times the camera man seemed way too present for the film to truly swallow you. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but for me it didn't really work. Handheld and semi-docu feel, I'm all for it, but the way it was done here just seemed like mistakes. Which I'm sure it was. It is, after all, a debut feature. Somewhere between all of this the film manages to show inspiration and influence from some of the greats in Russian cinema, which is never a bad thing. It's a good looking production with some fantastic shots and setups, and the interesting sound work is impossible to miss while watching it as well. Its style is far from flawless, but it's impossible to deny that good style is indeed present and is part of what draws you into the film.
I liked "Chetyre". The first half of it is actually fantastic - the dialogue is entertaining, fairly intellectual, and it makes you think about several of the points made. The characters might not be telling the truth about themselves, but we certainly get a good feel of who they are. It's something we carry with us for the rest of the movie, even though the rest is a complete opposite of the first part in many ways. The second half didn't hook me in as much, but now after the movie I realize how much I have been thinking about it. I haven't came to a conclusion of my thinking, just brief decisions to be sure if I liked the film or not. If I watch this a second or third time I might get a few new ideas that'll guide me, but I also don't think I will revisit it in the near future. It's an interesting film that you will either feel fooled by, overwhelmed by, shocked by, or simply intrigued by. I keep coming back to the same explanation, but I think it's one that works: it's somewhere between realism and surrealism without ever completely becoming one or the other.