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Andrei Konchalovskii: House of Fools (Dom durakov) (2002)

reviewed by Marcia Landy©2004

 

House of Fools (2002), scripted and directed by Andrei Konchalovskii, is set in 1996 in a psychiatric hospital in the Russian border of Ingushetia during the Chechen War. According to an opening intertitle, the film is "based on a true story." However, the film quickly reveals that it is not a conventional documentary of this war but a satiric, darkly humorous, and polemical dismantling of the forms of power and violence that underpin the Russian and Chechen conflict, and that indict the adventurism of the Russian state. Initial images of train tracks and of a train foreshadow the film’s interweaving of fantasy and actual events. The bluish and dark lighting of the exterior is only relieved by shots (like stars) of the train lights as the locomotive speeds through the landscape on its nightly passage. Popular singer Bryan Adams (as himself) is superimposed on brightly-lit shots of the train interior, as he sings to various women.

After this enigmatic introduction, the spectator is given the first of many episodes that depict a war between the inmates in their various forms of rebellion against the hospital authorities. Angry and obsessive Vika (Marina Politseimako) spits on the floor, shouting: "War and stupidity will feed this generation of junkies and trash." Vika is threatened with punishment if she does not wipe her spit from the floor despite her claim that a 1993 Soviet law protects mental patients from harsh treatment. But Ali (Stanislas Varkki), an inmate and a poet who has assumed the role of disciplinarian, forces her to capitulate as the other inmates watch. Zhanna (Iulia Vysotskaya), a feminine figure with romantic fantasies centering on Adams, is reminiscent of Fellini’s Gelsomina in La strada and is a key figure in the film. Among the other inmates are Lucia (Elena Fomina), Zhanna’s sex crazed roommate, an old man who refuses food, Mahmud (Rasmi Dzhabrailov) wearing medals that cover his jacket, a dwarf, the effeminate Goga (Gevorg Ovakimvan), and Down’s Syndrome Zoia. At first glance, the film appears a version of Tod Browning’s Freaks; however, as the film develops, the world of the hospital becomes a microcosm of the Russian world, the patients its population.

Music is critical to the film, not only in connection with Bryan Adams’ singing but also with Zhanna’s accordion playing; it is the film’s strategy for introducing tenuous images of freedom. During heightened moments of conflict, Zhanna plays her accordion. At those times, the lighting changes from somber to colorful and, for a brief instant, there is momentary relief, followed by renewed aggression. In one scene, as Zhanna’s music accompanies the inmate’s physical exercises, Mahmud sets fire to the curtains, occasioning a disciplinary response on the part of the doctor who orders that the patients be medicated and strapped to their beds. Called up by Zhanna’s fantasies, Adams walks the corridors and sings to her. The patients continue to look forward to the train’s arrival, but one day it does not arrive at the scheduled time, and the radio and phone are also cut off. A train does finally arrive but not the virtual train with Bryan Adams of Zhanna’s fantasies.

These are the first brooding intimations of the Chechen war, and the chief doctor (Vladas Bagdonas) decides to leave and to evacuate the patients. (A silent commentator in the film is also a TV, seen off to a side but frequently in view with images of politicians). By contrast, in a colorful fantasy sequence, Adams appears and serves doctors, attendants, and patients champagne, singing to Zhanna as flower petals descend on the assembled party and all dance. This otherworldly moment gives way to mayhem as the patients rush to leave the building, with Vika militantly shouting: "Down with Fascism. Take to the streets." In an image reminiscent of The Battleship Potemkin, the old man in a wheel chair rolls down the stairs as explosions follow and the inmates retreat indoors.

The narrative now focuses on the other war through the introduction of the Chechen "bandits" and Zhanna’s relations to them. The Chechen soldiers include a wounded Lithuanian woman, a sniper (Cecilie Thomsen), viewed from Zhanna’s troubled gaze. Zhanna’s accordion is appropriated by one of the soldiers, and she goes to the basement where some of the Chechen men have gathered. After retrieving the instrument, she jokes and dances for the men. In jest, Ahmed (Sultan Islamov), the accordion player, proposes marriage to her. This scene is interrupted by the arrival of Russian soldiers, not to fight, but to bargain over the return of the body of a dead Chechen. Economic exchange is central to this encounter as Russian and the Chechen soldiers exchange ammunition for drugs, and the Russian and the Chechen captains meet to decide on a price for the body of the dead Chechen. A moment of commonality is introduced when the captains discover that they had both fought in the Afghanistan war, and the Russian acknowledges that the Chechen "saved our asses in the Chungur attack." However, an accidental shooting by a drugged Russian soldier disrupts this moment of camaraderie. The Russian captain calls his men off, abandoning the agreed-upon $2000, shouting as he leaves: "Give it to your mullah." Not only is this episode another instance of bonding gone awry, but it also further confounds the motive for the war, reinforcing Vika’s comment about the existence of a generation of "junkies."

Zhanna’s decision to marry Ali and to renounce her love for Bryan Adams produces one of the most touching scenes in the film as the inmates prepare her for the wedding by giving her presents. Lucia gives her patent leather shoes and a white dress; Vika, a wide brimmed, white straw hat; another inmate a bottle of vodka; and still another beautifies her face with makeup that makes her look like a circus clown. She too dispenses gifts. However, Ali remains alone in his room, and when she comes to say goodbye to him, he pleads with her to stay. After saying goodbye to the bedridden patients, (she gives an apple to the old man who refuses food), she passes into the corridor where the ubiquitous TV sits, this time without an image. Suitcase in hand, accordion over her shoulder, she walks out of the building as the patients watch from the window and wave. She enters a building where the Chechens are sitting around a table and announces: "I’m here." Despite Ahmed’s initial reluctance to marry her, he succumbs to taunts and proposes, but a fight develops. Again Zhanna plays her accordion but to no avail until a Chechen begins to play and the men (and Zhanna) dance. Ali interrupts the festivities to bring her home, claiming that she is ill and that the hospital is her home. For the second time, she claims that she is "healthy." Increasingly, the film tries to blur, if not overturn, the borders between madness and sanity.

Zhanna informs Ahmed that she won’t marry him declaring her love for the Canadian singer and about the need for love in terms that recall Gelsomina’s quest for meaning in the Fellini film: "We’re alive because someone loves us." Ahmed, in turn, explains how he "never thought he would be a soldier." Only when his brothers were killed and the roof fell in on his father, did he "call for a gun," and he wonders further when he will be killed, but Zhanna assures him that he is "special," and questions whether he looks like his father or mother. He tells her he looks "like a bald bastard," removing his hat to reveal a balding head. They get drunk on vodka and spend the night together outdoors. The following morning, she claims that she has been unfaithful to Adams, and that she and Ahmed should now be together always. An explosion interrupts this moment, with Vika shouting that it is a "joy" to see the Chechens "fighting for their freedom" and "Down with Russian chauvinism."

In the final episodes, the violence escalates with images of a falling helicopter, more bombings, the killing of Chechens, Ali’s wounding, and of Goga dancing on the smoking earth. Zhanna wants to fight with Ahmed but he takes off on a truck without her. She returns to her room with her baggage when the Lithuanian sniper enters. As the woman aims her rifle, Zhanna takes a broken shard of glass and jabs at photos of Ahmed that she holds in her hand. Then she notices the Lithuanian woman dead in a pool of blood and her own bleeding hand, screaming as she runs from the room. Amidst the bombing, she again has a vision of Adams, and, ominously, a guitar propped against a wall falls to the ground. Zhanna now has a conversation with the old man who did not eat the apple she had given him. The fruit becomes one of several philosophical conversations. In response to her optimistic view of God as forgiving, he tells her that what he sees in the apple is "people who love and destroy each other fighting for generations and dying." He cannot eat because he sees their faces in the apple.

The doctor now returns, and so do Russian soldiers brandishing weapons and seeking Chechens in hiding. The officer in charge of the mission approaches the doctor for a drug, protesting: "I can’t take it any more." His psychic discomfort notwithstanding, he is adamant that "all Chechens should be shot." The doctor gives him the requested drug via a needle and reflects that "in the war it’s not victory, the most important thing is death," to which the Russian soldier responds by citing Tolstoy: "Why is a man happy when he kills another," but then rushes out to kill. In the dining room where the inmates are having lunch, Ahmed enters the room and sits by Zhanna. The doctor and the soldier arrive, asking the inmates for help in locating a hiding Chechen. No one becomes an informer. However, the bloody Chechen captain is brought in, and the Russians leave, believing that the building has now been "cleansed." The doctor notices Ahmed who tells him: "I’m sick. I need to be treated." Ahmed is asked to visit the doctor after lunch, thus leaving this Chechen’s fate uncertain. The film concludes with Zhanna holding her accordion, images of Bryan Adams on the train waving goodbye, a close-up of a rose, and of Zhanna, slowly bowing her head until the only image that remains is of her white straw hat.

Thus, the film presents a grim, uncompromising, and unresolved allegory of the power of the Russian State and of the psychiatric hospital, its surrogate. While there are precedents for interpreting the mental hospital in this fashion—King of Hearts and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestHouse of Fools turns the trope of madness into a dissection of Russian politics. The only possible alternative to the hospital is a virtual world of love and redemption, conveyed through music and perhaps poetry, by rejected by Russians and Chechens alike. The film’s treatment of the hospital with its focus on psychically and physically maimed human beings is not offered as a plea for legal and administrative correction of physical living conditions. The focus on people’s bodies, their eating, defecating, sexual functions, mutilation, and dying can be more fruitfully regarded in the bio-political terms set forth by Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben in their analyses of modern expressions of politics as residing in the state’s power over life and death.

The film’s linking of the mental hospital to the Chechen war makes unambiguous the fact that modern warfare is expressed on several fronts: through the disciplinary apparatus of social institutions, through formal violence by means of deadly weapons of destruction, and through the blind, uncomprehending pursuit of annihilation. Despite the momentary bonding between Russian and Chechen captains and despite the Russian soldiers’ recognition that they need to be anaesthetized in order to continue the slaughter, the violence persists. Through various characters—Zhanna, Ali, Ahmed, the old man, the doctor, and even the officer quoting Tolstoy—the film introduces philosophic reflections on aggression and death, all of which are tenuous, if not rhetorical. But finally what is the viewer to make of Bryan Adams’ presence and of the fantasy of romance aligned to it? Is the film suggesting that music is the "food of love" and that it (like the film) is the only hope for life, or is this merely a chimera? The spectator is left in the dark.


Andrei Konchalovskii: House of Fools (Dom durakov) (2002)

reviewed by Marcia Landy©2004

17/03/04