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Life Times 4, or: Postmodernism à la Russe

Julia Vassilieva

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1. Mikhail Epstein, ‘Postmodernism, Communism, and Sots-Art’, in Marina Balina, Nancy Condee & Evgeny Dobrenko (eds.) Endquote: Sots-Art literature and CH Soviet Grand Style (Evanston: Northwest University Press, 1999).




Russian Postmodernism: the term may still sound exotic in the West, but in Russia it has become a household name, alongside Dostoevsky’s psychologism, Tolstoy’s realism and Sholokhov’s socialist realism. Michael Epstein, one of the preeminent theoreticians in Russian humanities, even argues that postmodernism and communism are in fact the same thing, and that Russia is the real (albeit unacknowledged) birthplace of postmodern development. Paraphrasing a vivid Leninesque expression, he asks provocatively: Is not postmodernism the highest and final stage of communism? (1) Indeed, seventy-odd years of Soviet regime did much to advance the end of modernity and to question – if not exhaust – the categories of truth, reality, individuality, authorship, time and history. Postmodernism was brewing within Russian cultural development, slowly ripening and gaining strength in the sheltered domain of underground culture. However, the collapse of the USSR became a critical catalyst of this development, the force that brought it to the surface, into the realm of the open circulation of discourses – while at the same time becoming main theme and sujet, main trauma and preoccupation of postmodern artists.

Vladimir Sorokin, author of the critically acclaimed (and scandalously received) novels The Norm (1979-1984), The Queue (1982-1983) and Blue Fat (1999), became of the most prominent exponents of the postmodern approach. The production of his controversial opera Rosenthal’s Children in 2005 attracted the attention of the Duma (Russian Parliament), which had a debate over whether such a work (bordering on blasphemy, pornography and obscenity) could be staged in the Bolshoi Theatre – a citadel of Russian Classical art.


2. From the International Rotterdam Film Festival jury’s analysis of 4.  

Over the last five years, Sorokin’s works have begun migrating to the screen, starting with Moscow (2001), followed by Kopeika (2002) and finally 4 (2005) directed by Ilya Khrhzanovsky. 4 became not only the most controversial of these three works, but was also dubbed the first decadent film of post-Soviet era. While Khrhzanovsky’s directorial debut won numerous awards, in Russia the release of the film (delayed for a year and screened in a ridiculously small number of cinemas for a very limited time) turned into a saga reminiscent of Kafkaesque Soviet-era censorship nightmares. Interestingly, both within and outside Russia the film was overwhelmingly described as ‘shocking’ and often interpreted as a ‘depiction of radical disintegration of the society which devours itself.’ (2)

This article aims to provide a more constructive reading of the film by explicating the tropes, archetypes and symbols it uses to make a statement that goes beyond a social and psychological portrayal of Russian life in decline. In so doing, I also seek to delineate both the parallels and the distinctions between a postmodern approach in the West and in Russia, where it not only has distinctive aesthetic stylistics but also different functions. To this end, I use concepts developed within Russian critical theory by Mikhail Bakhtin, Sergei Eisenstein, Yurii Lotman and other scholars.

In an interview at the Venice International Film Festival in 2004, Khrhzanovsky said:


3. Tadeusz Sobolewski, ‘Interview with Ilya Khrhzanovsky’, Venice Days, no. 11 (2 September 2004),
  4 is about how reality carves out a human’s individuality, turning a unique person into a piece of living meat. It’s about how hard it is to be our true selves. There are few protagonists in the movie—all of them are young, between 25 and 30. That’s my generation; we were around to see the fall of the Empire, but our more conscious life began with the new times of great changes and evaporating values. (3)  



Accordingly, 4 can be understood as a reaction to the radical changes that have occurred in Russia since the collapse of the USSR, where the rapid dismantling of political and ideological structures was echoed by a corresponding shake-up of the value system.

In his analysis of post-Soviet literature – in particular the novels of Sorokin and Viktor Pelevin – Alexander Genis suggests that much of this writing had been prompted and inspired by the ‘unexpectedly easy fall of the Soviet regime.’ Genis, however, goes on to note that while


4. Alexander Genis, ‘Borders and Metamorphoses: Viktor Pelevin in the Context of Post-Soviet Literature’, in Mikhail Epstein, Alexander Genis & Slobodanka Vladiv-Glover (eds.), Russian Postmodernism (New York: Berghahn Books, 1999), p. 212.

  [i]ts stability proved illusory, nonetheless, its ghosts have endured. The regime’s power over reality has become manifest only after the death of the regime itself. Under the spell of these necro-effects, contemporary culture is striving to assimilate the mechanisms with which the regime created – and much more successfully than was previously thought – its own reality. (4)  










One of the important aspects of 4 is the simultaneous flight from the Soviet past and the impossibility of escaping it. This is a situation of which the director is acutely aware. At the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2005 he remarked: ‘Our generation, including my seven-year old son, is a generation of Soviet people.’ The strong hold of the past over the present is demonstrated in a number of ways, including the succinct metaphoric image of the meat that had been frozen in Soviet times, but is still sold and consumed by people. Our past remains with and in us.

4 addresses the past – in both its ideological and aesthetic aspects – in a distinctly postmodern way, employing devices and methods that are characteristic of this tendency, including the re-cycling of images, motifs and styles that have accumulated over the years but are now used in a new context and with different functions, creating a distance and tension between ‘then’ and now’ – the questioning of everything that until recently had been perceived as truth, within a broader context that undermines the idea of absolute truth per se. True and false constantly switch positions in the film and demonstrate how arbitrary all such positions are. Lastly, 4 is coloured with a slight irony, although by and large the ironic tone is overshadowed by the seriousness of the issues it raises.

The most important is the issue of the continuity of culture and civilised attitudes among people. In reflecting on the possibility of cultural disintegration, the Russian-Georgian philosopher Merab Mamardashvili observed:






5. Merab Mamardashvili, ‘Soznanie i tsivilizatsiia’, Priroda, no. 11 (1988).

  Civilisation is a very delicate flower, a very fragile construction, and in the 20th century it has become obvious that this flower, this construction, has started to crack and is threatened with extinction. The destruction of a civilisation’s basis has consequences for human beings, for the human dimension of life, leading to an anthropological catastrophe that is possibly a prototype for all other possible catastrophes. This can happen, and is partially already happening, due to the crippling of laws according to which human consciousness – and the superstructure called civilisation that is closely linked to it – are built. (5)  



4 demonstrates the real dangers of such a catastrophe: the fragile veneer of civilisation, which maintains a functioning society, begins to disintegrate. This is evident in the deserted towns, where abandoned houses look out on empty streets through broken windows; the packs of feral dogs that roam the streets; the total amnesia with regard to traditions and rituals; the dominance of the most primitive needs – money, sex, and food – which override everything else. And, as the world becomes fragmented, the very notion of reality becomes illusory – another common theme in post-Soviet art and in postmodernist art in general.

Not only does external reality become hard to grasp, but in this rapidly disintegrating world the very essence of human individuality also becomes difficult to define or maintain. The fragility of personality-construction and the risk of its disintegration is meticulously elaborated through a whole series of images, allusions and dialogues: false biographies, clones, doubles, twins, reflections, substitutes, masks, dolls. At the same time, these same images and dialogues are used to demonstrate the work of fate, which becomes another crucial component.





Piccinini, The Young Family


The opening scenes show the main characters in their ‘real’ lives: Marina, a prostitute, leaves her client; Oleg, a new Russian businessman, discusses buying frozen meat; and Volodia, a piano tuner, works with the instruments. Soon, however, they accidentally meet each other in an empty bar. All of them present themselves as somebody else, constructing imaginary alternative biographies. Marina introduces herself as a marketing specialist, advertising mood-improving devices; Oleg as an official from the administration of the President, responsible for supplying water to the Kremlin; while Volodia poses as a scientist working on human cloning. According to the director, the idea of cloning was one of his main inspirations, and plays a prominent role in Sorokin’s other recent works – Blue Fat, Rosenthal’s Children and The Way of Bro. The idea of mechanically reproducing human beings and the inherent danger of the loss of individuality are played out for the first time through Volodia’s phantasmagorical story in the bar.

The particular type of clones – quadruplets, four identical copies – on which Volodia allegedly works provide a direct link to the film’s title. And although Volodia eventually admits to Marina that the whole story has been a lie, a fatal coincidence later in the film has him accused of a crime committed by his virtual clone – by someone photographically identical to Volodia. Their similarity is so indisputable that Volodia accepts responsibility for the crime – and, consequently, for someone else’s life and fate as his own, serving a prison sentence and later being sent as part of a penal battalion to fight in an unspecified conflict. A coincidence in the virtual plan leads to tangible consequences in the real world. Oleg meets his death in an accident while travelling in the countryside in search of very unusual piglets – absolutely round (suggesting genetic modification) and identical (suggesting cloning). Intriguingly, Australian artist Patricia Piccinini uses similar images of radically tranformed pigs in her work The Young Family (2002-2003).

Accident, coincidence and chance become determinants in the lives of these characters. There seems to be a logic, however, that operates behind their apparently random appearance, a logic most aptly captured by the notion of fate — a notion that has not yet exhausted its potential for philosophical and cultural analysis, even at the beginning of the new millennium. Recently addressing this issue, Mikhail Epstein distinguishes among acts, accidents and events. While acts are determined by individual will, and accidents are brought about by chance, events represent the outcome of a certain logic that puts acts in some relationship to accidents. Fate, therefore, represents itself as a task of explicating this logic, reformulating the relationship of necessity and freedom:




6. Mikhail Epstein, Znak probela (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2004), p. 580.

  The presence of freedom transforms everything that is happening with a person into a fate, into a field of meaning that has not yet been understood. But fate never reveals its meaning completely. Fate that does not pose a question about the meaning of events is just an accident. Fate that answers this question completely is causality. Fate is located in this very space between an unexplainable accident and an all-explaining cause, as an anxious and questioning field of potential meaning. (6)  






It is in this zone – where accidents turn into events, posing questions about their meaning – that the various trajectories of 4’s characters unfold. Volodia’s arrest and imprisonment, appearing at first to be the result of an accident, are felt to be the result of some strange logic when read against his earlier autobiographical fantasising – which suddenly turned from an entertaining chat into a sinister form of fortune-telling. The events cannot be explained through a commonsense logic of cause and effect: the falsification of biography does not contain an imperative to be continued, developed or resolved but, specifically in light of what happens later, the earlier event becomes meaningful. The bar scene triggers the mechanism of fate, which becomes unavoidable and unescapable. Volodia does not even try to fight against what is happening to him; his reaction is passivity, silence and acceptance. This scene can be interpreted in various ways as a result of the accumulated Soviet experience of futility of resistance to the State, system and power. At the same time it resonates with the central motif in The Brothers Karamazov — the relationship between crime, guilt and punishment.

Another definitive characteristic of fate demonstrated by the film is the impossibility to grasp, verbalise or pin it down. Fate is always larger than our ability to represent it through reflection, logic or language. 4 does not give clear answers regarding why, for what, and even what exactly happens in relation to the characters. The narrative remains open-ended. Fate at work in the film is more likely to be associated not with Moirai spinning the thread of a man’s life, but with cutting-edge scientific theories generated within quantum physics and chaoplexity – the new branch of knowledge that explores random, stochastic, unpredictable processes. Such systems offer arresting parallels and metaphors – if not explanations – for the trajectories of human life in an increasingly complex environment, the nature of which starts to be understood more and more as relativistic.

Continuing experimentation with hypothetical versions of events (as in Yasmina Reza’s play Life Times Three or Peter Howitt’s Sliding Doors [1998]), 4 gestures towards several potential versions of one life, focusing on Marina and her sisters. They happen to be quadruplets, a fact that not only resonates with the film’s title, but also reinforces the central contradiction inherent in the word ‘identity’: sameness versus individuality. The four young women represent four possible life scenarios. The sudden death of Zoia, one of the sisters, brings them together and forces them to reflect on their lives. Whereas the three surviving sisters all belong to the modern Russian world, Zoia represented a radically different way. She lived in a small village and devoted her life to the craft of doll-making. The world of the village has very little to do with reality; it is its symbolic alternative, its never-land, its ‘through the looking glass’ image, its true Other, pure alterity.

The move into this world is like a slip from the real into the virtual world, thus reinforcing the motif of reflection and duplication. However, duplication as a device commonly used in art and literature is never equivalent to a simple repetition: it shows the object from two points of view at the same time, adds depth, breaks the boundaries between outside and inside, and sometimes reveals the features that the normal image tries to hide. Besides, a double represents a set of features that allows one to see both the invariant nature and potential shifts (alive and dead, non-being and being, ugly and beautiful, villain and saint, pathetic and heroic). To a large degree, these central dichotomies are used in 4, but not simply as binary oppositions: rather, they highlight the possibility of shifts inherent in them. The characters and images in 4 are deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, the sequences of clones, doubles and reflections stress the idea of mechanical reproduction and potential loss of individuality; on the other, they allow for a possibility of change, which in turn increases their potential for the future.






7. Yurii Lotman, Kul'tura i vzryv (Moscow: Gnozis, 1992), p. 117.

8. Mikhail Bakhtin (trans. Helene Iswolsky), Rabelais and His World, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).



Interestingly, the film does not use professional actors extensively; a substantial proportion of roles is played by ordinary people. Marina and her two sisters are played by real sisters Marina, Irina and Svetlana Vovchenko; Volodia is played by the singer Shnurov (also widely known in Russia as Shnur); and village crones are played by real old women of the countryside near Pskov. However, this has nothing in common with either documentaries or increasingly popular reality-television shows. Instead, we are witnessing one more substitution: real people become actors who in turn play themselves. To use semiotic terminology: the signifier becomes equal to the signified, and the sign to its denotate. Nevertheless, this does not lead to a collapse of the image. On the contrary, the image becomes enriched by exposing its double (artificial and ‘real’) nature. The same phenomenon in literature was addressed by Lotman: ‘The rhetorical combination of "things" and "signs of things" (collage) in a unified textual whole creates a paradoxical effect highlighting the conditional character of the representation and its undisputable reality.’ (7) In addition, the intrusion of such ‘random’ elements initiates the interplay between them and the basic structures of the text, increasing unpredictability. As Bakhtin said about the medieval crowd engaged in carnival: ‘Life itself plays here’. (8) To a degree, the same is applicable to 4, just as other important characteristics of carnival noted by Bakhtin suggest that the grotesque – as a stylistic and conceptual system – plays an important role in the film.

Grotesque stylistics visually shape many images in 4 that are presented in an exaggerated, excessive way. There is a particular emphasis on carnal nature and raw, exposed texture. This is evident most clearly in the bodily images: from the opening close-up shots of frozen meat (muscles, ligaments and frozen blood) to the pieces of freshly roasted pork dripping with fat; from the naked female bodies in the sauna to the wrinkled skin of the village crones; from ugly, open mouths chewing chicken and eggs to toothless mouths singing Soviet songs with idiotic smiles. Scary, obscure, monstrous images are also present in the background: menacing military-looking machines doing roadwork nearly kill a pack of stray dogs, giving the audience a shock in the opening of the film; deserted, ghost-like post-Soviet towns, where it seems that all the inhabitants have disappeared, leaving a vacuous atmosphere; the dark, dense, impenetrable forest that suggests the most common characteristic of such places in Russian folklore – to engulf little lost children.


Brueghel, The Beggars









While elements of grotesque are present in the film from the very beginning, they become more visible when the action moves from town to country. While the events in town are trivial, normative events of everyday reality, the action in the country is centred on much more dramatic and symbolic moments: Zoia’s tragic death, the subsequent suicide of the village fool Marat, the reunion of the three sisters which pushes them to reflect on their lives. The move from town to country also functions as a journey from an ordinary reality to a phantasmagorical one, inhabited by Brueghel-like crones, Dostoevskian village fools and carnival puppets with faces made of bread, and genitals made of cloth. A reality in which funerals are followed by orgies, dolls come to life in the hands of drunken crones, pigging out on a pig becomes a ritual banquet, toothless mouths chew stale bread to make dolls’ faces, drunken fights are followed by drunken tears, and decay and disintegration apparently rule the day.

To understand these images only and exclusively as negative depictions of contemporary Russian reality, however, would limit the understanding of the film. These images are multilayered and work on different levels. While they are almost recognisable as reflections of everyday life, many of them are also linked to archetypal symbols and motifs. The funeral, the feast, the fights and the burning of dolls become means to recreate grotesque and carnival tropes as elaborated by Bakhtin: life encounters and takes on death, youth confronts old age, new and old times sort out their relationships.





9. Ibid, p. 50.

Bosch, Christ Carrying the Cross (1515-6)

  Zoia’s funeral and repast are presented as ritualised actions, although none of the participants is capable of reproducing the ritual in its original form – nobody remembers the knells and there is no priest to say a funeral prayer. It is more about having a symbolic action to mark death rather than following tradition, reproducing the form of ritual in its reduced and mutilated shape. The emotional intensity, however, indicates that the very involvement in this action is critically important. The village deals with Zoia’s death as a single organism: everyone mourns her and everyone then takes part in the funeral banquet. In this context, Zoia’s death loses its individual significance and becomes integrated into the world order determined by grotesque tradition, where death is always ambivalent and inextricably linked with life.

In the system of grotesque imagery, according to Bakhtin, ‘death is not a negation of life seen as the great body of all the people but part of life as a whole – its indispensable component, the condition of its constant renewal and rejuvenation.’ (9) In this context of grotesque imagery, Zoia’s death while chewing bread (one of the basic symbols of the source of life) in order to make dolls (small children, symbolic posterity on which, however, the survival of the village depends in practical terms) can be read as death while giving birth – one of the principal tropes of a grotesque system. However, the new life takes an unusual form, represented by androgynous monsters. Once again, the film delivers a postmodern take on grotesque imagery, as if questioning the potential of tradition. At the same time, recycling of the imagery continues – after Zoia’s funeral, Marina collects and burns the remaining dolls, half-eaten and dismembered by dogs. She violently throws these little killers into a pile – these dwarfs pretending to be innocent, grimacing and watching from every corner. She makes a huge spectacular bonfire on the fresh grave of her sister, as if trying to erase all her painful memories and hopes that never came true, her anguish and despair. However, more than anything, this fire seems to continue the line of destroying/rejuvenating carnival fires that once celebrated the end of winter and beginning of spring and, through this, the death of the old world and the birth of a new one – the blaze that so powerfully illuminates everything in folk tradition.


Brueghel, detail, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559)



The aptness of seeing Zoia’s death within the grotesque carnival framework is most powerfully indicated by the scene of the funeral repast banquet, which quickly turns from a shared dinner into a ritual happening. The abundance there is astonishing — especially considering that it takes place in a poor Russian village where everyone is struggling to survive. The table is stuffed with food: a whole pig is roasted for the occasion, there are countless bottles of self-made vodka, bowls of different home-made pickles and preserves and freshly baked bread. It is impossible to eat and drink up everything present – it is truly a ‘banquet for the entire world’. Moreover, everyone is welcome, it is an all-inclusive, all-embracing event. The motif of devouring, consuming, chewing or eating is very prominent throughout the film. There are many close-ups of open chewing mouths, fingers covered in dripping fat, hands tearing apart food and various foods in their palpable materiality from cold chicken to sizzling pork. All these images belong to the grotesque conception of body and world; the motif of consumption is highly significant ones, and the corresponding image of an open mouth functions as its typical representation. The grotesque body devours the world and in turn is devoured by the world, since it is constantly in a state of simultaneously growing and dying. In this system, the mouth is positioned as an ambivalent image of ‘bodily abyss’, since topographically it is also linked to the bodily lower stratum. Its ambivalence stems from its position as both a consuming (killing) organ linked with death, and its role in festive eating, celebrating the victory of life. Similarly, death itself within comic folk culture is always ambivalent – it is always about both dying and giving birth.

Even though the village banquet is coloured with macabre undertones, through the abundance of foods and drinks, life triumphantly asserts its presence through unrestricted excessive eating and drinking, through orgy and laughter. As Bakhtin said of banquet images:




10. Ibid, p. 283.

  The banquet always celebrates a victory and this is part of its very nature. Further, the triumphant banquet is always universal. It is the triumph of life over death. In this respect it is equivalent to conception and birth. The victorious body receives the defeated world and is renewed. (10)  





Hagens, pregnant woman (2003)






This banquet quickly turns into an orgy, where drunken ‘babushkas’ take off their clothes and start dancing wildly, grab the dolls and engage in erotic play with them. This scene is frequently the most shocking in the film. Naked, ugly, decaying bodies present a significant challenge to eyes accustomed to the body canon promoted by mass culture. Just as in the grotesque tradition, the body has become one of the most prominent themes in postmodernism. However, it is approached and rendered radically differently. On the one hand, popular culture is obsessed with a plastic, remouldable, socially constructed body – a body of rapid makeovers, both internal and external. More and more frequently we see images of an empty body – puppet, doll, plaster cast — as in the sculptural groups by Stephan Balkenhol, where a number of identical figures highlight their mannequin nature. On the other hand, there is a tangible horror of the biological body and the inevitability of death inherent in it.

Such a postmodern treatment of the body becomes more a post-mortem examination, presented as almost an anatomical object. This tendency finds its culmination in the works of Gunther von Hagens, originally intended as anatomical models and executed using body plastination techniques – increasingly perceived by viewers as objects of art. The English sculptor Eleanor Crook performs a very thorough examination of museum-quality anatomical specimens to create her confronting images of an emaciated, suffering, sick body at the threshold of death. If, in the latter case, the body is stripped of its surface, in the former the representation of the body is reduced entirely to such surface. However, there is an alarming similarity in both tendencies – the body is depicted as lifeless or explicitly dead, in different stages of disintegration. Emptied of its vital, carnal nature the body turns into a site expecting and harbouring immanent death.

Death in such an approach becomes a final, untransgressible limit – unlike in the grotesque, where it is only a moment in a cyclical development. Postmodern artists seem mesmerised by death, but it is not in order to overcome it, more to play on the horrifying fear of approaching this threshold. Death is evoked again and again, but every time it re-emerges as a denial of life. The alienated and isolated body, the lonely dweller of the disintegrated world of postmodern reality, dealing with death one-to-one, is radically different from the grotesque body.


Balkenhol, Man Lying on a Platform (1998)

11. Ibid, p. 26.



Crook, detail, My Heart is a Strange Cabin (2005)

12. Sergei Eisenstein, Metod (Moscow: Muzei kino, Eisenstein-Centre, 2002), p. 249

13. Ibid, p. 250.

Three images above: Eisenstein, Que Viva Mexico! (1932)


The grotesque body, as Bakhtin demonstrated, is depicted as changing, growing, maturing and decaying – a reflection of those global changes that characterise major historical shifts. The ambiguity and ambivalence of the conception of body in the grotesque is sharply different from the clearly defined and delineated classic canon of body in relatively stable historical epochs. ‘The grotesque body is not a closed, completed unit; it is unfinished, outgrows itself, transgresses its own limits.’ (11) It is often depicted in its critical moments of development and change, in its proximity to birth and death. In accordance with the major aspiration of this symbolic system to present life as an ever-renewing cycle, two bodies – one dying and another just been born – unite to form one. This body is vitally linked with its surroundings. Hence, the images of crones in 4 can be interpreted differently: to a substantial degree they continue the grotesque tradition. It is symptomatic that they are similar to the images created by Bosch and Brueghel, the pre-eminent masters of the grotesque tradition in the visual field, working within the same framework and historical period when Rabelais created his carnivalesque world of Gargantua and Pantagruel. The depiction of naked old bodies in 4 is not an act of voyeurism, and its function is not to shock the viewer. The symbolic meaning of this display cannot be reduced to the idea of ‘Russian life as an endangered species’, as has been suggested by some critics. This deformed old body, literally on the verge of dying, plays out the motif of regenerating death once again. When crones start taking off their clothes, when their deformed tits and blown bellies start to dominate the screen, when they grab the dolls and their decaying bodies become entangled with those small, child-like bodies whose unexpectedly prominent genitals become very active, we see in reality two bodies in one. The whole scene turns into real carnival where old age, ugly and triumphant at the same time, laughs shamelessly into the face of death and defeats it.

However, the optimism of folk laughter is undermined by a shift typical of Khrhjanovsky — while the old bodies of withered women become engaged in a sexually coloured play with the dolls and they lose control in the orgy, the perfect nubile bodies of the three sisters are presented in an asexual, still, neutral way in the sauna scene. While the crones are involved in at least a symbolic reproductive activity (making dolls), the only activity that the young women are involved in is prostitution. Yet again we see a shift as a sign of the ongoing questioning of the normal developmental progression, and yet again we are urged to ponder its implication for the future.

It is instructive to contrast the opposition of life and death in 4 with that of another film in which it was central, but resolved in a far less ambiguous way: Sergei Eisenstein’s unfinished Que Viva Mexico! (1932). This film was conceived by Eisenstein as ‘a vast poem about Life, Death and Immortality, where Mexico was chosen as the material in a conception which has never seen itself realised on the screen ... ’. (12) The traditional Mexican feast of the dead was planned as a grand finale, ‘a raging mockery of death and her bonny emblem with the scythe’. (13) The symbolic meaning of the Day of the Dead was depicted as a triumphant victory of life over death. The film used visual images of death that feature prominently in the religious and folk art of Mexico, including its Mayan and Aztec heritage. It all culminated in the play between a live face and a skull, where a cardboard mask of a skull was hiding either a live face or a real skull.

In both 4 and Que Viva Mexico!, life and death are opposed through respective images of playful, nubile, vibrant, virulent bodies contrasted to dying, decaying ones; and in both films carnival is used as a means to annihilate the opposition of life and death, thus continuing the tradition of folk laughter. However, where the modernist Eisenstein, a firm believer in the idea of historical progress, resolves the opposition in the triumphant victory of life over death, and places an exclamation mark, the postmodernist and relativist Khrhjanovsky suspends the action and places a question mark – and this seems to resonate with our time much more strongly.



14. Eisenstein, Izbrannye sochineniia, Vol. 6 (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1969), p. 213.



15. Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, p. 207.

  There is another important dimension that allows to draw parallels between Eisenstein and Khrjanovsky: behind the opposition of life and death, old and new, there is another essential category at work: time. Eisenstein’s preoccupation with the unity of time through historical and evolutionary development, which he was particularly extensively exploring in his late opus magnum Method, is well known. He also defined the search for time as the ‘main drama of twentieth century characters’. (14) Under quite different historical circumstances, 4 positions the issue of time in relation to a most pressing question — whether further development, continuity or tradition is possible against the background fear of disintegration and collapse of the cultural, civilised dimension in Russia. It is significant that both directors turn to carnivalesque images to address this issue of time. As Bakhtin pointed out, the real protagonist in carnival, ‘its hero and author is time itself, which uncrowns, covers with ridicule, kills the old world (the old authority and truth), and at the same time gives birth to a new one.’ (15) Bakhtin insisted that, in a period of great historical change, people turn to the ideology of the grotesque; even in science, the paradigm changes are often preceded and prepared by some psychological carnivalisation. The grotesque therefore facilitates change; it is a form and a means of transition, of leaving the past and moving into the future.  

16. Viacheslav Ivanov ‘The category of Time in Art and Culture of the 20th century’, in Ritm, prostranstvo i vremia v literature i iskusstve (Leningrad, 1974).

  However, traces of more archaic traditions can also be uncovered in such an approach to time. As has been shown in structural anthropology, the conception of time as a category uniting the opposition of day and night, birth and death, is characteristic of a mythological world view. These simple binary oppositions gave rise to a more complex concept of time described as a four part unity: the major mythological systems of both the Old and New Worlds – the Chinese, the Greeks and the Mayas – developed similar ideas of Four Historical Epochs or Four Ages (which can also be related to the four basic elements of fire, water, air and earth, and the four cardinal points of North, South, East and West.) (16) Such models reflect an understanding of time as not only perpetual but also repetitive. In this context, yet another interpretation of the title 4 can be offered: as a reference to the cyclical nature of time. Such approaches to time are rearticulated at different historical moments, both from scientific and artistic positions. Velimir Khlebnikov, one of the great Russian poets of the beginning of the twentieth century, tried to uncover the laws regulating the structure of time, which he understood as cyclical repetition, and expressed them in numbers (rather than in words). In doing so, he acknowledged the desire to tame the concept of time through the magic of numbers. Likewise, there is, for Khrjanovsky, definitely an element of black magic in his title: the only interpretation he is prepared to entertain is that 4 became a prophecy for him resulting in four long years of work on the film, and he repeatedly expressed relief that the film was not called 7 or 12!  

Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1662)

Tarkovsky, Solaris (1972)




The rich fabric of 4 contains traces of a variety of traditions: mythology and the grotesque, carnival and Renaissance. At the same time, it is sharply contemporary, and definitely belongs to the development of Russian postmodernism. However, the postmodern aesthetic has some specific functions in the film. Postmodern stylistics are typically characterised by a dense intertextual nature, intense use of allusions, pastiche and eclecticism. All these features are present in 4. There are multiple layers of intertextual referencing, and frequent gesturing towards and recycling of older tropes and images – whether literary, pictorial or cinematic. From Biblical motifs to Dostoevsky’s problematics, from Northern Renaissance art of Brueghel and Bosch to Rembrandt’s classicism, from Eisenstein to Tarkovsky — the list goes on. Entire stylistic approaches are, at times, recreated: for example, the scene of Volodia’s interrogation is reminiscent of social realism, gesturing not only towards its stylistics but to the issues and circumstances of this period of Russian/Soviet history.

However, images are not simply re-used and put into new contexts – they are twisted, rejigged and sometimes turned into their very opposite. In a scene reminiscent of The Return of the Prodigal Son, it is not the son returning after many years of wandering who is kneeling to his forgiving and accepting father; it is the father, crawling on the floor to take his son’s shoes off, driven by an obsessive desire to keep his house clean. As such it contrasts not only with the many pictorial elaborations of the theme, but also with the cinematic use of this motif by Tarkovsky in the final scene of Solaris (1972).

A similar transformation affects the image of the church in 4. There is perhaps no other single image that more powerfully reflects the political and historical changes in Russia, and the desperate struggle of the people to cope with them, than this. Let us recall some of the turning points in its history. The moment in 1931 when the Bolsheviks blew up the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow to make way for the swimming pool ‘Moscow’ is engraved in Russian collective memory, becomin emblematic of iconoclastic fervour and the triumph of communist ideology over obsolete religious beliefs. In 1937, Eisenstein depicted this attitude in his (ironically later destroyed) Bezhin Meadow, in a series of shots starting with the image of a church shown in its inverted reflection in a pool of water. The relative liberalisation afforded by Khrushchev’s thaw allowed a thorough romantisation and even limited lamentation over the destroyed churches and burnt icons — a mood well captured by Vladimir Soloykhin in his book Black Boards.




One of the most important symbolic projects of perestroika was the re-erection of Christ the Saviour Cathedral. The reconstructive euphoria was preceded by the question raised in Tengis Abuladze’s Repentance (1987): ‘What is the use of a road if it does not lead to a church?’ At the time, this phrase sounded not only as a revelation but also an ultimate truth, a moral imperative. However, it no longer resonates today. There are many roads to follow in contmporary Russia and, for better or for worse, those that lead to banks and casinos appear to be the more travelled. 4’s image of the church as a hardly recognisable ruin receding in the background of the shot — and collective consciousness – indicates the true place of the concept in the landscape of modern Russian reality and mentality.

Postmodern methods are used in a specific way in 4. While in Western postmodernism the referential, intertextual nature of a work of art is often associated with the fragmentation and disintegration of reality, in Russian postmodernism the same features serve a different purpose. Reference to and re-cycling of the material of the past allows Russians to work through that period in an almost therapeutic sense. Through this, our past – with its horrifying memories – starts to loosen its grip and lose its influence over the present. That is why the ideology and imagery of the grotesque is so prominent in 4 – as Bakhtin argued, there is a ‘memory of the genre’, and that genre allows us to deal with the moment of change, to address the past constructively. This past cannot be erased, forgotten or simply left behind, although the desire to do so can be very prominent, particularly in the Russian mentality. As Lotman suggested, while Western models of culture are based on triplicity – where changes rarely affect all cultural levels, and a rapid shift on one level coexists with a more measured progressive movement on another – the Russian mentality operates on the basis of a binary structure associated with the idea of a complete and total eradication of the old and a fresh new start. In the wake of the perestroika reforms, Lotman warned against the danger of following the ideal of a radical destruction of the old world and building a brand new one afresh. He hoped that the opening of borders would allow Russia to embrace the European model and argued that to lose this chance would be a historical catastrophe.

It seems that 4 has taken on this task in a serious way — it tries to work through our past, aiming at integrating it into the context of continuous development. It strives to assimilate the most traumatic aspects of Russian history, which its subjects probably would prefer to forget but simply cannot. It establishes preliminary tentative links between the past and the present and builds fragile bridges into the future. It provides an emotional road-mapping in the space completely emptied by the collapse of the Soviet empire. It persuasively demonstrates that time still goes on, and is in fact practically unstoppable. Time can grind the meat which was frozen in the Soviet era, and thrive on it. Time adopts Soviet songs for folk rituals and sings them through toothless, smiling mouths. Time makes spectacular bonfires in which it melts and solders remnants of the old with chunks of the new. Time now and then throws carnival at us in the most unexpected places, and thereby celebrates life in all its strange, unpredictable forms. The very fact that such a powerful, honest and serious film as 4 can be produced is in itself the best testimony to the fact that cultural tradition and continuity in Russia is alive and well.


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© Julia Vassilieva and Rouge December 2006. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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