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Seeking asylum

House of Fools is an interesting mess


The Russian film House of Fools, set inside an insane asylum on the Russian-Chechen border, is populated by a cast of characters who make Terry Gilliam's usual oddballs look like straight-laced Republicans by comparison.

Director Andrei Konchalovsky's film has the kind of conceit you'd expect of an us-against-them '60s film. In House of Fools, the crazy house is a bastion of sanity and the "real world" has gone loco. The film, which is inspired by a real 1996 incident, opens as the Chechen civil war rages outside the asylum gate.

The doctors and nurses have left the hospital to find the residents new lodgings, and in the meantime, bearded, scraggly Chechens burst into the madhouse and take up temporary residence. They soon captivate the institution's prettiest patient, Janna (Julia Vysotsky), the resident princess in Konchalovsky's fairy tale vision of asylum life.

Janna is an adorably knock-kneed, accordion-playing patient with a freckled nose and the cutest delusion going. Janna thinks she's the fiancee of the out-of-date Canadian pop star Bryan Adams. As if director Konchalovsky's cloying approach to cutesy-pie mental illness weren't enough, the director further erodes patience with his use of the repeated breathy strains of Adams' "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman," which becomes the film's insanity-inducing theme song.

In fantasy interludes, Janna imagines Adams -- who appears as himself -- romancing her in the hallways of the asylum or lovingly gazing on her sleeping form. Whenever Janna imagines Adams or begins to play her accordion, golden light floods into the dreary institution and everyone dances a cheery jig.

But Janna takes a momentary sabbatical from her Adams-philia when she falls for Chechen soldier Ahmed (Sultan Islamov), who jokes to his comrades about marrying the impressionable girl. She takes him seriously, though, and is soon chasing after him like an overeager Pekinese in a wedding gown and trousseau.

Konchalovsky clearly has a mania of his own for visual and moral extremes. His magic-realist world is a battleground between the jaded soldiers, with their mud-caked boots, and the absurdly infantilized insane, who crowd around the institution's kindly doctor like lambs around Jesus. Cinematographer Sergei Kozlov's silvery-blue light adds a further otherworldly tone to the proceedings.

Though House of Fools is a mess, it is often an interesting one, with its flower-child view of enlightened social pariahs and its contemporary post-post-Vietnam globalist ennui where 21st-century soldiers wear Calvin Klein Sport T-shirts and are hopped up on drugs. They remember, with perverse nostalgia, when they all -- Chechens and Russians alike -- fought side by side in Afghanistan. The film also has a uniquely regional texture, recalling a long tradition of Soviet and Eastern European filmmaking. Konchalovsky's portrait of the wartime landscape as a surreal one whose occupants walk around in a cotton-packed trauma is reminiscent of films from Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda's Ashes and Diamonds to Elem Klimov's Come and See.

House of Fools is a film too silly to inspire much more than mild surprise over its tired retread of the "world is insane" cliche or its ridiculously naive portrait of the mentally ill left over from antiquated nuthouse classics like Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor. Konchalovsky's madhouse is a carnivalesque doozy populated by actors so hammy and histrionic, the genuinely disabled patients end up looking saint-like by comparison. In this "you can never leave" Hotel Chechen, flamboyant queens mince about in tight exercise wear (in Konchalovsky's scheme of things, homosexuality and cerebral palsy are equally likely to get one thrown in the asylum), and midgets named "Shorty" are betrothed to nymphomaniacs who prance around in the raw. House of Fools is, in other words, a sane person's vision of what a nuthouse would look like, had they ever taken the time to check one out.

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