The New York Times
Dave Kehr

In House of Fools, the Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky dredges up one of the most depleted metaphors from the bottom of the cinematic sea: the madhouse as microcosm. Mr. Konchalovsky's mental institution is a rundown 19th-century mansion somewhere near the border of Chechnya, and it is filled with a mix of archetypes from the Russian and the Muslim worlds: an elderly seer who may be Allah, a plump babushka who pines for the Communist government and so on, up to and including the inevitable dwarf.

Each night, the lovably eccentric inmates gather around a window to watch a special train pass by, festooned with electric lights and piloted by none other than Bryan Adams, the whispery Canadian pop balladeer. As the train passes, Mr. Adams lip-syncs his song Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman while an amber light passes over the inmates' rapt, upturned faces. As the characters sigh with longing and the spectator gasps in disbelief, Mr. Konchalovsky moves his camera in on the radiant, angelic face of the holiest of his holy fools, a svelte young blonde named Janna (Iuliya Vysotskaya) who believes herself to be Mr. Adams's fiancée. She also plays the accordion.

This happy life is interrupted when a company of Chechen soldiers crosses the border and takes over the madhouse as their temporary base. Poor Janna is swept off her feet by one of her captors, a lanky foot soldier named Ahmed (Sultan Islamov), who proposes marriage to her as a joke. But Janna takes him seriously, packs her things and gets ready to depart, just as the Russian troops arrive.

As in Philippe de Broca's King of Hearts (1966), which House of Fools resembles to a highly painful degree, the viewer is given to understand that the gentle, childlike inmates are far saner than the generals and politicians who run the big, brutal outside world. This dubious, sentimental proposition is immediately undermined by Mr. Konchalovsky's decision to include among his extras several individuals with genuine disfiguring illnesses. You wonder how lucky they feel to be among the elect.

Mr. Konchalovsky has made some excellent films, both in the Soviet Union (his 1979 Siberiada is a minor masterpiece) and in the United States (his 1987 Shy People). But he's been adrift since he returned to post-Communist Russia for The Inner Circle in 1991, realizing only a handful of unsatisfying films. House of Fools, a French-Russian co-production that opens today in New York and Los Angeles, only adds to the sense that Mr. Konchalovsky has lost his artistic moorings. He has certainly lost his common sense.