The Globe and Mail Review
Rick Groen

How's this for a testament to the inherent absurdities of war? The setting: Chechnya, the recent past. A Russian tank rattles up to the gates of a building occupied by an armed band of hostile nationalists. The tank commander shouts out that his intentions are peaceful, that he has a Chechen corpse in the back of his vehicle, and that he wishes to return the body to its rightful home. For a price, that is.

His opposite number on the rebel side ventures forth, and the two negotiate a figure, even as they reminisce about serving in the same battalion during the Afghanistan campaign. Meanwhile, at the rear of the tank, a lowly Russian private is furtively engaged in another transaction with his Chechen equivalent. Their deal? Several rounds of ammunition in exchange for a plastic baggie of homegrown marijuana.

House of Fools may be a work of fiction, but it does contain large nuggets of researched fact, including the one above, and another that gives the movie its premise. This too is true: As the fighting closed in on a small Chechen town, the staff at a local mental institution simply up and left, abandoning the patients to their own devices. So the so-called lunatics were in charge of the asylum and, of course, they behaved with infinitely more reason than could be found in the bellicose world beyond the hospital doors.

Around this episode, writer-director Andrei Konchalovsky builds his antiwar fable. At its centre is Janna (Iuliya Vysotskaya), a patient whose pronounced lisp only seems to accentuate her sweet disposition. Within the comforting folds of her imbalanced mind, Janna is deeply in love and engaged to be married – to Canada's own Bryan Adams, who visits nightly to serenade her with his pop ballads. Yes, Adams actually appears on camera, as palpable to us as he is to his deluded fan.

When reality intrudes on her fantasy, and the Chechen military arrives to occupy the hospital, Janna shrewdly counters by switching fantasies – she simply transfers her affections to a sad-eyed soldier who shares her taste for music. The soldier patronizes her, more playfully than maliciously, but Janna and her fellow inmates are in earnest. They prepare a wedding dress, plus a feast. Then, amidst this illusion of love, bombs begin to fall and hearts are literally broken.

There's much more, although that's part of the problem – fables should be succinct, and Konchalovsky lets his run on too long. Also, true or not, the premise owes a considerable debt to Philippe de Broca's cult favourite, King of Hearts. In both films, similar scenarios lead to the same theme: War explodes the very idea of sanity; in its madness, there is no reason, and in its house, only fools. Fair enough, but the point emerges early, and everything else is the hammer hitting it home.

However, if some of the blows seem blunt, others are exquisitely precise. Like the sight of a Russian officer breaking down under the sheer fatigue of combat and, with his weapon drawn, begging a pharmacist to supply him with what he can no longer provide himself: the will to continue. Or like Vysotskaya's delicate performance, which strolls poignantly along the border of rationality, retreating one moment and advancing the next.

Konchalovsky has straddled a few borders of his own in a long, idiosyncratic career. He has worked in his changeable homeland (Uncle Vanya, Siberiada) and toiled in the more static confines of Hollywood (Tango & Cash, Runaway Train). So this is a return journey for him. Perhaps it's a labour of love; certainly, too often, it's a love that turns laboured.