Help Gone Mad

[Sumasshedshaia pomoshch']

Russia, 2009
Color, 118 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Boris Khlebnikov
Screenplay: Aleksandr Rodionov, Boris Khlebnikov
Director of Photography: Shandor Berkeshi
Costume: Svetlana Mikhalkova
Sound: Maksim Belovolov
Production Design: Olga Khlebnikova
Editing: Ivan Lebedev
Cast: Evgenii Sytyi, Sergei Dreiden, Anna Mikhalkova, Igor' Chernevich
Producers: Roman Borisevich, Ruben Dishdishian
Production: Koktebel Studio, with support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian

Like his previous film, Free Floating, director Boris Khlebnikov’s Help Gone Mad is a quiet, quirky examination of the lives of people living on the periphery of contemporary Russian Society. Trained as a film critic, rather than as a director, Khlebnikov’s films are typical of art-house cinema―well liked by critics and festival audiences (they have won prizes in Cannes, Moscow, and Sochi), but poorly attended by general. Help Gone Mad was co-written by Aleksandr Rodionov, a playwright associated with the theatre, teatr.doc (where the stage version of Vyrypaev’s Oxygen was performed) who has become a mainstay of contemporary Russian cinema, contributing to the screenplays for Free Floating, Khomeriki’s Tale in the Darkness, and Proshkin’s Live and Remember.

The film follows Zhenia (Evgenii Sytyi), a Belarusian guest-worker who, having lost everything during a mugging shortly after his arrival in Moscow, is taken in by a retired engineer (Sergei Dreiden), quickly becoming the Sancho Panza to his Don Quixote. Although it seems at times that Zhenia’s loyalty to the engineer stems almost entirely from the latter’s willingness to feed and shelter him (throughout the films Zhenia eats and sleeps at every possible opportunity), the guest-worker dutifully aids his master in his mad attempts to save the people of his apartment complex. And they need saving; the neighborhood is patrolled by a lazy but brutal policeman (Igor' Chernevich) who, exhibiting his own symptoms of madness, hallucinates about the imminent loss of his job.

The action takes place in a desolate suburban landscape, seemingly entirely cut off from the center. We are confronted by long shots, scaled to dwarf their human subjects, framed around the geometry of the built environment―crosses created by the intersection of prefabricated concrete housing units, horizontal stripes painted across facades, and the intricate hatchwork of iron grilles intended to prevent burglaries. Here the major sign of life, as Zhenia discovers shortly after his arrival, is the turning on and off of lights within the grid of windows facing a courtyard. This space is marked by a near absence of nature, with the major exception of a duck pond, which is afforded significant power by the engineer (even here, though, the ducks live in a wooden house).

This lack of nature serves to highlight Zhenia’s displacement from his Belarusian village (where the correctness of his fit is highlighted by the film’s opening shots connecting him to the pig that is traded for his ticket to Moscow), but he is not the only displaced person in the film. The engineer’s daughter (Anna Mikhalkova) is displaced by Zhenia, who occupies her father’s attention, her former bedroom, and even her childhood toys. The engineer is also displaced temporally, fondly remembering a time when things were, somehow, in a way he can’t quite describe, better.

As with Don Quixote, being stuck in the past is a major source of the madness that colors the help that the engineer offers his neighbors. While occasionally this is transparent, as when he adds phalluses to the busts of heroes of labor outside his former factory, often this relationship between his madness and nostalgia is more allegorical. The help he offers is connected to reality by a logic that only he can understand (but which he tirelessly tries to explain to poor Zhenia) and is often delivered in a terrifying fashion, sometimes through force or the threat of violence.

There is, however, something quite appealing about the engineer’s madness. When, while playing one of his daughter’s games with Zhenia, he explains, that in a choice between a house, a lake, a tower, and a hut, the house is the odd one out because the rest belong in a fairy tale, it seems that there might be something to his ability to see beyond the apparent. The help he offers is also granted a magical efficacy by the filmmaker’s manipulation of causality―the dumpster lid salutes him as he begins his rounds, he wins stuffed animals from a claw machine with every play, and his scribblings are perfectly legible to the policeman, who is their intended recipient. Conversely, when the engineer is deprived of his madness by pills given to him by his daughter, the world becomes unlivable.

In the end, the magic of the engineer’s madness unites Zhenia and his daughter, even if they, themselves are unaware of it. Khlebnikov grants his spectator the engineer’s ability to see beyond the apparent and watch as the pair are united, overcoming their displacement through a transcendence of spatial reality that the dumpster lid cannot help but salute.

Boris Khlebnikov (1972- ):
Khlebnikov was born in Moscow, where he worked several odd jobs before completing a degree in film criticism from the State Institute for Filmmaking (VGIK) in 1996. In addition to directing, since 2005 he has been a curator of the kinoteatr.doc film festival.

2009 Help Gone Mad
2009 Shame , short in almanac film Crush: 5 Love Stories
2006 Free Floating
2006 He Left (documentary; co-directed with Gai Germanika)
2004 Roads and No Future (music videos for the group Leningrad)
2004 Necessary Circumstances (TV)
2003 Koktebel (co-directed with Aleksei Popogrebskii)
2002 Mikhail Bulgakov: Black Snow (TV)
2001 The Sly Frog (short)
1997 In Passing (documentary short; co-directed with Aleksei Popogrebskii)

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