STYLE WINS OVER ORIGINALITY IN RUSSIAN HOUSE OF FOOLS
Tribune Review 07.11.2003 Jolie Williamson
The idea seems too simple: a movie about the insanity of war set it in a mental hospital. Heavy-handed and too obvious, you might think. And you would have a valid point.
The Russian film House of Fools overemphasizes its point at times. And it's not as sharply acted or as bitingly cynical as the superior 2001 No Man's Land, a Bosnian anti-war movie about another conflict few Americans understand. But under the direction of Andrei Konchalovsky, House of Fools manages to shake off the appearance of contrivance and predictability. Just because someone makes an obvious point doesn't mean he can't do it with elegance, grace and hopefulness shaded with brutality and despair.
Konchalovsky, who also wrote the film, starts with an introduction to the patients of a ramshackle mental hospital in a region beleaguered by the Chechen War. The main character of the film is Janna (Iuliya Vysotskaya), an optimistic young woman who is a permanent resident of the institution. She is a friend to and peacemaker among the other patients, but suffers delusions and hallucinations. Her delusions center on the Canadian singer Bryan Adams – who appears as himself in several segments of the film – to whom Janna believes she is engaged. The only thing holding them back from being married, she says, is that he's currently on tour. But he'll be coming for her soon, she tells the other patients, and she's faithfully waiting for him until he arrives.
When the Chechen-Russian fighting grows too near, the hospital's staff leaves to find a bus to evacuate the patients. In the meantime, a band of Chechen soldiers arrives and takes over the hospital as a base of operations. Janna mingles with the soldiers, one of whom teases her and says he wants to marry her. Janna is shocked and tormented by the "proposal." Will she cheat on Bryan Adams – actually leave him for this Chechen man? Russian soldiers also arrive at the hospital, their commander wanting to exchange a dead Chechen for a cash payment. The grunts who actually handle the deal have their own motives – the Chechens swap drugs for ammunition. The Russian and Chechen commanders – now wary adversaries – discover they were once fighting alongside each other in the former Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan.
Konchalovsky weaves sounds into his storytelling for wonderful effect. During moments of stress, Janna's hallucinates Adams singing his Latin-tinged Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman. The song itself – also used in the Johnny Depp starring Don Juan De Marco about another delusional young person under psychiatric care – dreamily slides over the realistic clashes among the patients and the soldiers. Janna plays the accordion – sometimes for real, sometimes in her imagination – peppering the scene with jaunty polkas. Chechen soldiers spontaneously call haunting and lovely Islamic chants while Janna stands by, slightly flustered.
Konchalovsky's choices in cinematography give all the right visual cues, though some are more standard choices: drab grays and greens for the realistic scenes; brighter colors for Janna's hallucinations. But the jerky, hand-held camera work is effective for the climactic battle scene – much like the opening beach assault in Saving Private Ryan. And a shocking helicopter crash is filmed with an incongruous elegance.
House of Fools might not bring any new ideas to the standard cinema depiction of war, but what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in style.