Watch a Hand-Painted Animation of Dostoevsky’s “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man”

Pub­lished in 1864, Fyo­dor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Under­ground has a rep­u­ta­tion as the first exis­ten­tial­ist nov­el. It estab­lished a tem­plate for the genre with a por­trait of an iso­lat­ed man con­temp­tu­ous of the sor­did soci­ety around him, par­a­lyzed by doubt, and obsessed with the pain and absur­di­ty of his own exis­tence. Also true to form, the nar­ra­tive, though it has a plot of sorts, does not redeem its hero in any sense or offer any res­o­lu­tion to his gnaw­ing inner con­flict, con­clud­ing, lit­er­al­ly, as an unfin­ished text. Thir­teen years lat­er, the great Russ­ian writer, his health in decline but his lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion and finan­cial prospects much improved, wrote a sim­i­lar sto­ry, “The Dream of a Ridicu­lous Man.”

In this tale, an unnamed nar­ra­tor also med­i­tates on his absurd state, to the point of sui­cide. But he observes this spir­i­tu­al malaise at a dis­tance, recall­ing the sto­ry as an old­er man from a van­tage point of wis­dom: “I am a ridicu­lous per­son,” the sto­ry begins, “Now they call me a mad­man. That would be a pro­mo­tion if it were not that I remain as ridicu­lous in their eyes as before. But now I do not resent it, they are all dear to me now.” This char­ac­ter, unlike Dostoevsky’s bit­ter under­ground man, has had a trans­for­ma­tive experience—a dream in which he expe­ri­ences the full moral weight of his choic­es on a grand scale. In a moment of instant enlight­en­ment, our pro­tag­o­nist becomes a kinder, more humane per­son con­cerned with the wel­fare of oth­ers.

It is the dif­fer­ence between these two tales which makes the sta­t­ic, inter­nal Under­ground a very dif­fi­cult sto­ry to adapt to the screen—as far as I know it hasn’t been done—and “Ridicu­lous Man,” with its vivid dream imagery and dynam­ic char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, almost ide­al. The 1992 ani­ma­tion (in two parts above) uses painstak­ing­ly hand-paint­ed cells to bring to life the alter­nate world the nar­ra­tor finds him­self nav­i­gat­ing in his dream. From the flick­er­ing lamps against the drea­ry, dark­ened cityscape of the ridicu­lous man’s wak­ing life to the shift­ing, sun­lit sands of the dream­world, each detail of the sto­ry is fine­ly ren­dered with metic­u­lous care. Drawn and direct­ed by Russ­ian ani­ma­tor Alexan­der Petrov—who won an Acad­e­my Award for his 1999 adap­ta­tion of Hem­ing­way’s The Old Man and the Sea—this is clear­ly a labor of love, and of tremen­dous skill and patience.

The tech­nique Petrov uses, writes Gali­na Saubano­va, is one of“Finger Paint­ing”: “Forc­ing the paint on the glass, the artist draws with his fin­gers, using brush­es only in excep­tion­al cas­es. One fig­ure is one film frame, which flash­es with­in 1/24 of a sec­ond while watch­ing. Petrov draws more than a thou­sand paint­ings for one minute of his film.” In Russ­ian with Eng­lish sub­ti­tles tak­en from Con­stance Garnett’s trans­la­tion, the twen­ty-minute “ani­mat­ed paint­ing” sub­lime­ly real­izes Dostoevsky’s tale of per­son­al trans­for­ma­tion with a light­ness and lyri­cism that a live-action film can­not dupli­cate, although a 1990 BBC pro­duc­tion called “The Dream” cer­tain­ly has much to rec­om­mend it. If you like Petrov’s work, be sure to watch his Old Man and the Sea here. Also online are his short films “The Mer­maid” (1997) and “My Love” (2006).

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See a Beau­ti­ful­ly Hand-Paint­ed Ani­ma­tion of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1999)

Watch Piotr Dumala’s Won­der­ful Ani­ma­tions of Lit­er­ary Works by Kaf­ka and Dos­to­evsky

Two Beau­ti­ful­ly-Craft­ed Russ­ian Ani­ma­tions of Chekhov’s Clas­sic Children’s Sto­ry “Kash­tan­ka”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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