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Roman Kachanov: Down House (Daun Khaus) (2001)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone©2004

Although only 37 years old, Roman Kachanov already has had a long and varied career in advertising and as the screenwriter and director of numerous animated and feature films. The son of a well-known director of animated films, Roman Kachanov, Sr., and a graduate of Moscow’s VGIK, his reputation was established with the award-winning absurdist comedy about army life DMB [Demobbed] (2000). His long-time collaborator Ivan Okhlobystin (born 1966), another graduate of VGIK and one of the most colorful and controversial figures in contemporary Russian cinema, has written, directed, and acted in more than a dozen films since his directorial debut in Nonsense: A Tale of Nothing (1988, short). Down House, their hip-hop adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, was the major cinematic scandal of the 2001 season in Moscow.

The outlandish title, based on contemporary Russian slang for "idiot" (derived from "Down’s Syndrome") and English "house" or "house music," can be interpreted as "insane asylum" or "music for idiots." Despite uniformly savage reviews in both the popular and intellectual press (a selection from "the most scandalous reviews of Down House" can be read on Okhlobystin’s own web site), the film turned out to be quite popular with a young urban audience willing to laugh at one of the giants of 19th century Russian literature and a critical literary source of modern Russian messianism.

Placing their film in post-Soviet Moscow, Kachanov and Okhlobystin have updated the major characters and actions of Dostoevsky’s novel, while systematically travestying its serious religious and political themes with great doses of absurdism and crude physiological humor. Prince Myshkin (Fedor Bondarchuk), a computer programmer and lover of "house music," returns to his "historic homeland" after being "almost completely cured of a series of nervous illnesses" in the Swiss sanatorium of Dr. Schneider. He falls in with Rogozhin (Ivan Okhlobystin), a pistol-packing new Russian millionaire, a former komsomolka and femme fatale, Nastasya Filippovna (Anna Bulovskaia), the Ivolgins, Epanchins, and other minor characters familiar from the novel. Nastasya Filippovna must choose between three suitors, Ganya, Myshkin, and Rogozhin, while Myshkin is caught in a triangle of his own between Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya Epanshina. The film concludes with Rogozhin’s murder of Nastasya Filipovna and the Prince’s relapse into madness. While preserving the bare essentials of Dostoevsky’s plot, Kachanov and Okhlobystin exaggerate the shocking violence and sexual frankness of the original by focusing on sexual dysfunction, bodily functions, masturbation, drug abuse, child abuse, murder, and cannibalism. Aglaya Epanchina (Elena Kotel'nikova) is a punk nymphomaniac, Ferdyshchenko (Aleksandr Bashirov) farts constantly and audibly, General Epanchin (Yuzas Budraitis) tempts Ganya (Mikhail Vladimirov) with railroad cars of Spam, Rogozhin and Myshkin dine on the flesh of the murdered Nastasya Filoppovna, and Myshkin takes a doggy bag home for Ganya. Indeed, Down House begs to be read as a post-Bakhtinian carnivalesque version of The Idiot.

Little remains of Dostoevsky’s "positively good man" in the dancing simpleton of Down House. Where Dostoevsky’s Myshkin appeared to be an idiot because he lived like a true Christian in a hypocritical and corrupt society, Bondarchuk’s Myshkin is unique among the degenerate new Muscovites because he neither drinks nor takes drugs, neither screws nor fights. While the novelistic Myshkin was a visionary, who dreamt of a future Orthodox Christian utopia, the new Russian Myshkin has visions of a futuristic Moscow, reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s anti-utopian Metropolis, and hallucinations in which he is pursued by a bloody dentist before disappearing into a computer-generated desert landscape. If the failure of Dostoevsky’s "Russian Christ" to transform the people with whom he comes into contact is an authentic tragedy, the relapse into madness of the modern Myshkin, after he and Rogozhin have feasted on the murdered Nastasya Filippovna’s leg, is merely an opportunity for the filmmakers to ridicule the naďve and outlandish idea that "beauty will save the world."

On its face, Down House represents a scandalous provocation by young filmmakers eager to show their independence from the Russian intelligentsia’s traditional reverence towards the literary canon. But the choice of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot for parodic treatment suggests other themes at work in Down House. By deflating Dostoevsky and his "Russian Christ," Kachanov and Okhlobystin are attacking the obsessive search for a positive hero that has dominated Russian literature and culture from Gogol and Dostoevsky to Socialist Realism and beyond. A more provocative declaration of independence from the traditional cultural themes and concerns and the messianic self-image of the Russian intelligentsia can hardly be imagined. From this point of view, the sensational success of Vladimir Bortko’s literal and respectful ten-part TV adaptation of The Idiot (2003) can be seen as a predictable conservative reaction to this scandalous and irreverent travesty of Dostoevsky and attack on the Russian intelligentsia.

Tony Anemone, College of William and Mary


Down House (Russia, 2001)

Color, 87 minutes
Director: Roman Kachanov
Script: Ivan Okhlobystin and Roman Kachanov
Cinematography: Mikhail Mukasei

Music: DJ Groove

With: Fedor Bondarchuk, Ivan Okhlobystin, Anna Buklovskaia, Aleksandr Bashirov, and Mikhail Vladimirov
Production: Film Studio.Ru


Roman Kachanov: Down House (Daun Khaus) (2001)

reviewed by Anthony Anemone©2004

14/07/04