Review by Bryony Dawson
Described by some as ‘a war film that isn’t a war film’, House of Fools draws the unlikely but revealingly obvious comparison between war and life within a dingy, cut-off psychiatric hospital. The scene of a neglected battle-torn Russia is set by a chilling slideshow of cold, empty shots of abandoned factories, silent train tracks and moonlit roads, but very quickly we’re immersed in the unsettling world of the asylum. Once introduced to the most bizarre array of crazed characters through slanting camera angles and run-down, flickering strip-lighting, the film begins to feel like some kind of caricatured comedy, and throughout, it remains almost impossible to discern actors from the genuine mentally ill patients Konchalovsky mixes into the ensemble cast. It’s certainly true that there is plenty of black humour; the raging anarchistic woman with Mickey Mouse-style hair bunches, the frenzied homosexual stereotype who twirls and dances down derelict corridors, and of course the freckle-faced, accordion-playing Zhanna (Vysotskaya), whose performance is what makes the film so exceptional. Zhanna has an all-consuming obsession with the Canadian pop-rocker Bryan Adams, polishing his poster like a star-struck teenager every day. Intermittently throughout the film, the gloomy colour palate of greys and blues flips into a rosy vignetted haze of painfully cheesy pop video-esque daydream in which she fantasizes about being serenaded, during which her wide, child-like eyes glaze over and she breaks into goofy, infectious, lopsided smiles.
However, the over-riding sentiment of the film is one of bemusement, if not bitterness and dismay towards the concept of modern-day warfare. Parallels of bewilderment and disorientation are illustrated by enemy soldiers shown trading marijuana for ammunition, mistakenly firing at their own side; in one particularly poignant moment, a Russian general admits that had he not been told, he wouldn’t have been able to distinguish a body as that of an enemy Chechen rather than one of his own. House of Fools possesses a well-worn 'One Species’ message, however it is not presented with quite the same aesthetic by which we have come to recognise other films that deal with war's many numerous and disturbing facets. Despite being shown in an intensely undignified light, it’s the terrified, mesmerised and somehow innately understanding reactions of the mentally ill patients to the chaos around them that lends the film its perceptive glimpse of the face of raw humanity, and what ultimately makes House of Fools so profoundly moving.