Barbican Film: Andrei Konchalovsky’s ‘House of Fools’

This Saturday will see Russian director and writer Andrei Konchalovsky at the Barbican Centre for a screen talk on his internationally acclaimed and award winning film, House of Fools (2002). After the screening he will be in conversation with Sight & Sound’s Edward Lawernson, followed by a Q & A session.

House of Fools is a wonderfully captivating anti-war exposé set in a mental institution on the Russian boarder at the outbreak of the Chechen War. The pain and difficulty of the mental and physical illnesses of the characters is deployed to contrast insanity and sanity, the real and the fantastic as the inmates are caught in a conflict zone as the rebels take hold. They eventually demonstrate that there is greater insanity in war than any mental institution.

One of the inmates, the mesmerizing and good-hearted Zhanna (played by Yuliya Vysotskaya in what is clearly one of her finest performances) attempts to take care of the inmates as they are abandoned by their doctors and their home becomes a camp for the Chechen rebels.

Zhanna’s only escape is in her music, she frequently plays her accordion to escape and transform scenes of violence and tragedy into carnival like scenes of gaiety; as well as indulging her delusion that Bryan Adams is her fiancé and then by focusing her romantic neurosis’s upon one of the Chechen rebels.

Music becomes a focal point to this film, acting as a thread stringing together the over-all fabric of the narrative. The importance of this should not be underestimated when one considers Konchalovsky’s background at the Moscow Conservatory. Music is used as a reflection of romance and fantasy; it demonstrates the obsessions and confusions at the events that unfold around the inmates.

There is a heart-wrenching beauty to House of Fools; characters deemed insane by society prove that they have a greater wisdom as to the ultimate folly of war when compared to the Chechen rebels and Russian soldiers around them. At points of dramatic violence Konchalovsky employs a documentary style camera work adding a greater sense of realism to the drama. In one of the final scenes Konchalovsky merges these two styles; as Zhanna plays here accordion a helicopter crashes and explodes behind her bringing together the extremes of fantasy and reality together. There is a surreal quality contrasted with a brutal realism which draws the viewer into the scenes.

Konchalovsky once said that “cinema is cruel as it is too specific. The task of a film director is to leave room for fantasy.” House of Fools does exactly this, and the film is strewn with characters obsessed and afflicted with their illusions, both mentally and politically, revealing the true pain, brutality and stupidity of war. It is most certainly not one to be missed!

House of Fools’ + ScreenTalk with director Andrei Konchalovsky (15) – Buy tickets here

Joe Walsh