Oleg (a meat merchant), Marina (a
prostitute), and "simply Volodia" (a piano tuner) drop into an
all-night bar in Moscow, where they are served by a narcoleptic bartender
(three plus one is four) while each regales the others with made-up
biographies. Oleg claims to work in President Putin's administration,
supplying him with bottled water and his wife with liquor; Marina passes
herself off as a marketing executive; and "simply Volodia"—played
by Sergei Shnurov, the infamous lead singer of the rock group Leningrad—as
a geneticist who clones twins (two times two makes four, again) in a
laboratory that has been engaged in these experiments since the days of
Stalin. After they separate, these fantasy realities, especially Volodia's,
begin to dominate their everyday lives.
The film was four years in the production and
post-production processes. And "four," it turns out, is the
concealed and mysterious number that rules the universe. Fours run though 4:
the four dogs of the opening scene, the four drills that scare them away
and the four snow removal trucks that sweep through the streets; the four
"round (cloned) piglets" that Oleg encounters in a restaurant;
the four sisters; the four dolls—with faces made from bread chewed by
the old and toothless, witch-like hags of an impoverished and isolated
provincial village—that are left behind after the death of one of the
The surviving "three sisters"
(another of scriptwriter Vladimir Sorokin's cinematic allusions to Chekhov)—played
by the Vovchenko triplets, non-actresses whom director Khrzhanovskii found
working in a Moscow strip-club—return to the village to bury their
murdered sister-prostitute just as Volodia is arrested and jailed as a
serial killer. Marina's journey to the village is a voyage through hell:
she passes through a "Russia" that cannot be distinguished from
a wasteland, encountering people who are human only in name. As the
reviewer in The New York Times has pointed out, rarely has a film
portrayed such a disgusting view of humans, especially when they are in
the presence of food.
The film is an aggressive assault on viewers'
sensibilities: the glittery opening images of Moscow's middle-class
respectability quickly give way to (beautifully composed) graphic
depictions of decay, decrepitude, and the basest animal instincts. At the
same time, the film's soundtrack is unrelenting: with not a single note of
music, sound consists exclusively of background noises and dialogs that
are almost always deviant and frequently profane, especially when spoken
by the old, breast-baring women.
Not surprisingly, the Russian Ministry of
Culture went on record criticizing the film for its obsession with
"dirty language and inclusion of disgusting scenes," demanding
that more than 40 minutes be cut before it authorized commercial release.
Implicit in this outburst was not just another attack on scriptwriter
Sorokin (who has been hounded for pornography and obscenity charges by the
pro-Putin morality movement Moving Together, most recently for his
libretto to a new opera—also about cloning—Rosenthal's Children),
but rather because of the film's disrespectful attitude towards Putin's
wife and the assertion that the Russian government continues to make use
of penal battalions, now in the war in the Chechen war. Khrzhanovskii's
refusal to cut or re-edit the film ensured that it has been seen by
virtually no one in Russia. It has been screened out of competition at the
Venice International Film Festival (2004); at the Rotterdam International
Film Festival (2005), where it won one of the Tiger Awards for Best Film;
and two weeks ago at the fourth TriBeCa Festival in New York. A first
screening was scheduled at Moscow's House of Cinema at the end of April.