The Odd Couple: Dysfunctional Russian Lives in Boris Khlebnikov’s Help Gone Mad

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Help Gone Mad
Engineer (left) and Zhenya (right) on one of their adventures

What would happen if you transferred Miguel de Cervantes’s peculiar twosome of Don Quixote and Sancho Pansa or Samuel Beckett’s equally eccentric pairing of Vladimir and Estragon from Waiting for Godot to the Moscow of the 21st century? This is exactly the experiment Help Gone Mad, an interesting Russian independent film by Boris Khlebnikov, seems to conduct. It is anything but an ‘ordinary’ movie, although the outline is pretty straightforward.

Zhenya (Evgeniy Syty), a kind and lazy zhlub from the Byelorussian countryside, comes to Moscow by train. An incident staged by criminals suddenly and unexpectedly separates him from the rest of his companions. He ends up in Russia’s giant capital all by himself and without any money or documents. Without any friends or relatives in this big and hostile city, the homeless and broke Zhenya first sleeps on a park bench. Then, miraculously, a strange old man, Engineer (Sergei Dontsev), comes to his rescue and invites him to stay at his apartment.

Since Zhenya now lives with the geezer, he is also at the eccentric old codger’s mercy, and the two of them embark on a series of outlandish but oh so typically Russian episodes on the grim streets of present-day Moscow. It becomes apparent that something is not right with the old man, other than him being a queer fellow. Zhenya, however, seems unable to sense it. When Engineer’s daughter (Anna Mikhalkova) shows up at his place one day, however, a horrible truth is revealed.

Help Gone Mad is difficult to understand if you are unfamiliar with the daily life in Moscow of the present and the past. The old man invites Zhenya to fight against the evils that cause trouble in the city. The police, at the time still called the ‘militia,’ appear to be unable, or rather incompetent, to do anything about them. Indirectly, Help Gone Mad makes fun of them, as other Russian movies have done in the past. Operation ‘Y’ And Other Adventures Of Shurik, for instance, although in a more slapstick fashion. Here, an officer is seen drawing a nude woman and boobs rather than taking protocol.

Other episodes recall similarly unusual Russian films from the past. The scene when Zhenya convinces Engineer to canoe through a pond in a big cardboard box and the two, predictably, sink knee-down in the water could almost be taken out of Alexander Rogozhkin’s Peculiarities Of The National Fishing. Unlike the aforementioned comedies, however, the conclusion of Help Gone Mad is anything but funny. It positively teems with cruelties, emotional more so than physical. Yet all of that must be regarded as part of the tragic ‘Russian realities’ that Muscovites seem to have grown accustomed to.

Help Gone Mad is not a fast film. It takes its time for the story to unfold. Neither is there the kinetic cinematography and fast-paced cutting we all know from the modern Hollywood movies nor a full-blown orchestral score. Instead, Khlebnikov uses almost exclusively static medium shots and a relatively low number of cuts as well as solely relying ambient noises for the soundtrack of Help Gone Mad. It is an intriguing movie, without a doubt, yet one that seems hard to grasp for viewers without a cultural background of Russia.