Abandon farce, all ye who enter here.
This variation on the quote from Dante’s Inferno sprang to mind, after I watched a 2015 film version of Nikolai Gogol’s farcical short story “Diary of a Madman,” by a small, independent film production company called Oddbodies.
For starters, the immediate impressions from the film are somber. The protagonist’s room, in which he speaks his diary entries, is so dimly lit that much of it is in darkness. The furniture in the room is minimal; a single flower on a bedstand only serves to accentuate the room’s destitution. No wonder that this extremely poverty-stricken protagonist (low-level civil servant Aksenty Poprishchin) descends into madness. Beyond these—the film interposes, between the recitation of diary entries, a few bleak notes from (guitar?) strings in the background and black-and-white, shaky animation. Either the music or the animation could reflect psychiatric illness; neither is farcical. And yet, Gogol’s writing is farcical.
In the very first entry of “Diary of a Madman,” Poprishchin makes incredibly implausible statements, like “[The section chief] must be envious that I…sharpen pens for His Excellency.” Not long after, Poprishchin asserts that he overheard a couple dogs talking to each other, to him a plausible event, given that “I also read in the papers about two cows that came to a grocer’s and asked for a pound of tea.” What an especially silly image! Nor does the story ever take on a solemn tone. Not only can a dog talk, it can write letters, and the content of these letters, which span five pages of the story, is comical, like something a stand-up comic might invent. Even this distressing story’s last line is comical, as if Gogol is refusing to get serious.
Oddbodies’ film version of “Diary of a Madman” does not refuse to get serious. While Oddbodies on its website describes the story as “both absurdly funny and heartbreakingly tragic,” their film version tends to accentuate its “heartbreakingly tragic” aspect. For one, just the fact of a one-man show emphasizes the civil servant’s isolation. Poprishchin acts out the scenes with the other characters within the confines of his room. Meanwhile, the frequent interposition, between entries, of bleak background music and shaky animation underscores Poprishchin’s descent into madness. Towards the end of the film, it becomes clear that Poprishchin has been committed to an insane asylum. Whereas previously he had kept himself well-groomed, Poprishchin is, first, unshaven, his hair sticking up, then, naked from the chest up, then, lying on his side with a hood over his head—which has been shaved. At the very end, naked and scarred, he implores, “Save me! Take me away!” It leaps to the eye and ear that he has been receiving maltreatment.
The focus for Oddbodies differs from Gogol’s focus. The film, which in every episode captures the civil servant’s mental anguish, is surely focused on mental illness and the treatment of mental illness. The film’s episodes were released, one at a time, during 2015’s Mental Health Awareness Month, established in 1990 by the U.S. Congress to increase awareness about mental illness. Gogol, however, is focused on the hierarchy that creates the low-level civil servant’s anguish. Thus, Poprishchin is obsessed with his section chief (“Cursed stork!”), his self-important director and the director’s daughter, who becomes engaged to a kammerjunker (Groom of the Chamber, at court) and, at the end, the “grand inquisitor” of the insane asylum, who beats him. Hierarchy was the enemy. Humor was Gogol’s weapon.
This difference aside, the Oddbodies’ film version of Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman” is awe-inspiring. Paul Morel as Poprishchin is wonderfully expressive, with his voice, his gestures, his looks. He takes the viewer down into a living hell, a journey marked by bleak background music and shaky, creepy drawing. This is definitely a film to remember.
Thomas Gagnon has published essays and reviews in Wilderness House Literary Review and alternative literary blog, The Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene. He has published articles about art exhibits in South End News and poetry in cross-disability literary journal Breath and Shadow.