house of fools (2002)


director: andrei konchalovsky

julia vysotsky, bryan adams

If one thing can be said about Andrei Konchalovsky’s House of Fools, it’s that there’s no mistaking what, precisely, the movie is about. This is no small feat in a time when it’s hard to say just why most movies are made at all.

The film is set in an insane asylum somewhere in an untouched corner of the seemingly endless Chechen war. Janna (Julia Vysotsky) is a spot of beauty in a gallery of grotesques, an innocent who soothes her fellow inmates with her accordion playing while living in a dream world where Bryan Adams is her distant but devoted fiancé.

The story begins when the real world - the war - suddenly erupts into the mad but stable little society of the institution, with a group of rebel soldiers seeking shelter from Russian troops. Konchalovsky’s film is kinder to the Chechens - carefully depicted as a committed and even musical group of fighters - than the Russians, who are either drug-addled, despairing, or battle-crazed.

While there are some remarkable moments in the film, such as the “sale” of a rebel corpse and some spare ammunition to the Chechens in exchange for drugs, the whole story hangs on the rather overused truism that “war is madness”. The metaphors are made to groan even more loudly when - imagine this - the inmates take over the asylum. Konchalovsky’s obvious relish in casting real asylum inmates, and the surreal spectacle of Bryan Adams playing himself, gives a misleading impression of energy and vitality around a trite, even predictable, story.

While getting Adams to play himself is a bizarre coup, it also shows the director underestimating the peculiar weight of celebrity. Adams’ cameo overwhelms the film whenever he appears, smiling benignly while some lush iteration of “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman?” plays on the soundtrack. Just precisely what Adams represents - the unobtainable dream of anodyne, ideologically weightless western pop culture, perhaps? - to Janna is never explored, which seems a shame since the film grinds to a mesmerized halt whenever he appears onscreen.

In this light, it’s inevitable that House of Fools will be known as “that crazy Russian film where Bryan Adams plays himself”. If this happens, the director himself will be the only one to blame, having neglected to make a film more compelling than its overused message and single, undeniable feat of stunt casting.