Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky is the latest in a string of promising-but-undernourished world-cinema wunderkinds with an affinity for the crypto-naturalism of Béla Tarr and Aleksandr Sokurov, and a jones for watching people walk around. At the beginning of Khrzhanovsky's 4 (a.k.a. Chetyre), three Muscovites meet in a bar and swap lies. Prostitute Marina Vovchenko pretends to be an advertising executive repping a new "Japanese device" that emits happy-waves. Piano tuner Sergei Shnurov claims to be involved in a genetic-engineering experiment that dates back to the Khrushchev era. And shady meat-broker Yuri Laguta insists that he's a Kremlin insider. Then they all go their separate ways, returning to a conflicted modern Russia where the black market is doing better than the legitimate one, and menacing government trucks roam the streets, either tearing them up or sweeping away debris.
Khrzhanovsky has some insights into how a country steeped in institutional secrecy can become the kind of place where people make up preposterous stories that just might be true. He also fills 4 with dense symbolism, with lots of talk about twins, clones, doubles, and companions, and lots of images of wild animals who scavenge much like the human characters. But in spite of a handful of striking images—a shot of dogs being scared off by pile-drivers, a spooky aquarium-cleaning, a drunken party in which withered old ladies lift their shirts and slap each others' breasts—4 never resolves into anything special.
Khrzhanovsky means to comment on how Russia's old world continues to remake the new, even if it's just in the way a village of elderly women fashion dolls out of partially chewed hunks of bread, in a craft project depicted in nauseating detail. But he gets mired in the methodology of contemporary foreign films. He opens the movie with a 30-minute conversation shot from a few tight, unvarying angles, and he later holds excessively long, unsteady takes of people and vehicles in monotonous motion. Khrzhanovsky spends so much time photographing nothing that he doesn't have a lot left over to complete his triptych. Shnurov and Laguta's stories get short shrift, while 4 repeatedly returns to the curvaceous, haunted Vovchenko. Still, at least Khrzhanovsky knows his strength, which is creating an atmosphere so palpable that audiences can almost smell Vovchenko's thick hair, redolent with ash, booze, conditioner, and ennui.