The comparison of the world to an asylum is a venerable device, one that sometimes transcends its frail roots. Andrei Kochalovsky's film about the war in Chechnya is not such a happy case. Heavy-handed and obvious, House of Fools hectors insistently when it should engage emotionally. The motives behind it are doubtlessly good, but in the event the picture is tedious and grating, with a "magical" style that couldn't be less enchanting and a series of multiple climaxes that threaten never to end. Any hope that it could become the modern equivalent of a cult favorite like Philippe De Broca's King of Hearts (1966) is based on nothing more than wishful thinking.
The setting is a run-down psychiatric hospital on the Chechen border, where a Russian doctor (Vladas Bagdonas) cares for a bevy of colorful patients. Among them are Ali (Stanislav Varkki), a large but reticent man who writes and wears a bulging backpack filled with his scribblings; Vika (Marina Politseimako), a screeching, acerbic troublemaker; and a variety of other types – the effeminate whiner, the firebug, even a dwarf. But the central figure among the guests is Janna (Iuliya Vysotskaya), a fragile, sweetly-smiling blonde who's obviously intended, amidst the Fellini-inspired grotesquerie, to be the Giulietta Masina figure, angelic but vulnerable. Janna is a musical sort – she plays polkas on an accordion–and her benign madness involves believing that she's the girlfriend of pop singer Bryan Adams (who periodically shows up playing himself in her mental ramblings). The peaceful chaos of the place is smashed, though, when the war intervenes. It's first taken over by a ragtag group of Chechen rebels – one of whom jokingly offers to marry Janna, leading her to abandon her beloved Bryan and go off to him – and later by Russian forces. In the disorder (exacerbated by the disappearance of the doctor, who's gone off to secure a bus to transport the patients safely away), the inmates literally take over the asylum; and they prove saner than the supposedly well-adjusted soldiers, whose madness on both sides is shown especially in a scene where they exchange corpses, money and munitions. A measure of calm is ultimately restored to the establishment, and in a supposedly hopeful plot turn at the end Janna's dream is realized as well – though through a calculated gesture that comes across as a reverse image of the old "I'm Spartacus" ploy.
There's a kind of desperation in Konchalovsky's effort to keep this scenario convincingly gritty while also making it universally meaningful and luminously engaging; almost nothing goes right. Things are almost always played too broadly, and the occasional appearances by Adams more often seem silly rather than eccentrically amusing. And while Vysotskaya certainly puts great effort into trying to appear elfin and sweetly unhinged, she never manages to capture the sense of enchantment the role requires. (The sad-sack mien of her Chechen husband-to-be, Sultan Islamov, doesn't engage us terribly well, either.) But even more problematical than all this is the simple look of the picture. The jerky, handheld camerawork is displeasing enough, but the grainy, bleached-out textures are almost painful to the eye; this resembles a poor HDV effort, though much of it was shot on film. (The cinematographer is Sergei Kozlov, although since the aesthetic choice was undoubtedly the director's, he probably shouldn't be blamed overmuch.) Eduard Artemiev adds a carnival-like score that further accentuates the picture's Fellini-esque aspirations.
One has to believe that in making House of Fools, Konchalovsky wanted to offer a serious statement about the futility of war in a whimsically unsettling style. Unfortunately, his film is too disjointed, derivative and stylistically clumsy to be much more than an irritant.