Deborah Young

Running full-steam ahead in his non-Hollywood mode, in House of Fools director Andrei Konchalovsky describes the war between Russia and Chechnya as a conflict between madmen, compared to whom the residents of a mental institution are sane human beings. This whimsical fairy tale about a young woman patient who falls in love with a Chechen soldier, "abandoning" her imaginary fiancé Bryan Adams (who amusingly appears several times in the film), has the comically grotesque appeal of a Fellini film and could reach out to auds in specialized release. It lacks the originality and invention to go much beyond that, however. Pic works best when Konchalovsky confronts the feminine universe of music, clowning and emotions with his muscular Runaway Train side, and in those scenes some serious sparks fly. Basic business should be in the range of his 1994 Ryaba My Chicken, his last film before turning to television and opera directing.

An old building on the Chechen border houses a motley crew of psychiatric inmates, humorously viewed without fear of political incorrectness by a handheld camera as they dance, shout and cavort. The institute's doctor (Vladas Bagdonas), a man of modern views, dances along with them. Pretty Janna (Iuliya Vysotskaya), who plays polkas on her accordion, believes she's the girlfriend of pop star Adams; introverted Ali (Stanislav Varkki) carries a backpack bulging with poems; Vika (Marina Politseimako) is a loud-mouthed hysteric who stirs up trouble. The main characters are pretty obviously played by actors, while real patients make up the supporting cast.

After this conventional buildup, pic gets into gear when bombs begin falling on the institute. The nurses flee and the doctor takes off to find buses to evacuate his patients, leaving the residents to run wild. Captained by fiery Vika, they make a bid for freedom, but the arrival of a contingent of Chechen irregulars quickly turns them back. Unlike the bloodthirsty Chechens depicted in the recent Russian hit The War, these soldiers are polite and sing beautiful folk songs, accompanied on Janna's accordion. Flirtatious Ahmed (Sultan Islamov) casually promises to marry the girl. Janna takes him at his word and, saying goodbye to her Bryan Adams poster and the rest of her friends, goes to join his detachment.

The sunny Vysotskaya, half clown and half woman, stands at the moral heart of the story with her innocent but fully felt love. The clash between her intense feelings for Ahmed and the ugly war machine, visualized by a falling, exploding helicopter that she doesn't even notice, is the most powerful part of the picture. As her new Prince Charming, Islamov strikes a balance between soldierly duty and an innate love of life. Popping up throughout the film, the incongruous appearances of Bryan Adams crooning Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman always get a laugh.

Camerawork leaves a lot to be desired, staggering between overly desaturated blue images and cheap-looking video cutaways. Eduard Artemiev's music has a jolly circus feel.