Kantemir Balagov's Beanpole (2019) is having its exclusive online premiere on MUBI in the United Kingdom. It is showing from October 11 - November 9, 2019.
The twenty-eight-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov seems awfully young to take on the weighty topic of war, as he does in his second feature, Beanpole. And yet, Balagov’s talent is rising at a time when Easter Europe falls under the sway of war stories. From Poland to Hungary or Russia, World War II commemorations draw scores of youth, some too young to even have heard war stories from their grandparents. Balagov told me in Cannes, where his film premiered in the Un Certain Regard section, that against such nationalist background, which stresses heroism, it felt important to also show the physical and psychological suffering that the war inflected on millions. And to do so through the eyes of women, who, while they were clearly not just nurses or messengers but also active combatants, are often delegated to supporting roles.
Balagov drew on a fantastical source for inspiration—the oral testimonies of WWII, gathered in the book, The Unwomanly Face of War, by the master raconteur and Nobel Prize winner, Svetlana Alexievich.Alexievich has been telling stories of Russia and the Soviet Union that feel familiar—with the undeniable warmth, inventiveness and spunky romanticism of its people—but also painful, and sometimes otherworldly. Balagov reconstructs this sense of mystery and of tragic fate in Beanpole, a film whose emotions are kept under a tight lid, swaddled in faint glimmers and softened by the shallow-depth-of-field, but whose pressure builds persistently. The story takes place in Leningrad, soon after the war. Two friends, the impossibly tall Iya—hence her nickname, Beanpole—and the statuesque Masha reunite when the latter returns from the frontlines. But first Iya, who suffers from PTSD so crippling it paralyzes her body and mind, rendering her catatonic, must disclose a terrible secret: She has failed as a caretaker to Masha’s little boy, Pashka (Timofey Glazkov). Infertile after war injuries, Masha fixates her hopes for another baby on the sexually withdrawn Iya. The two thus make a troubled duet, filled with dreams tainted by war.
Balagov creates an evocative mise en scène and art direction. One of the film’s early scenes shows Iya giving Pashka a bath in a tin tub, the little boy’s naked body captured vulnerably, from above, and then carried through a long cramped hallway, to a communal kitchen. It’s a convivial space, yet one in which solidarity and warmth are undermined by misery, and hunger, and by the constant importuning of men. We’re reminded of this when Pashka’s babysitter, a seamstress, mentions her male clients’ posturing, or when Iya’s elderly neighbor calls her a violet flower, and then places his hand on her shoulder, with a transparently solicitous intent. From the start, Beanpole establishes a world in which men are not so much support or solace as an obstacle or an outright threat. For heartbroken Masha, they will soon also become a means to an end.
And yet, Balagov invests equally in portraits of men—most notably, in the stoic, quietly suffering chief surgeon, who runs the hospital in terrible conditions; and the ex-soldiers in the hospital, whose camaraderie doesn’t blind them to the fact that, regardless of their war medals, they are a burden to their families. That little Pashka serves as a mascot for this coterie of the wounded makes the film even more poignant. In one scene, he stands like a miniature adult, a silent performer, before a group of men desperate to be distracted from pain. Just how difficult it is to feel genuine warmth in this world is captured in another sequence when, in pitch dark, Iya walks with Pashka in a crowded street. The camera stays close to the boy, low and far from Iya’s towering height. At this level, the world is a crushing mass of bodies, more and more crowded, and suffocating. This scene is but a premonition of the later tragedy, in which the frozen Iya clings too long to the fragile Pashka, her body smothering him with her weight. Also remarkable in these scenes—particularly as Iya freezes—is the sound design, a mix of faint clacks and breathing, not naturalistic yet frighteningly claustrophobic.
The film’s sickly green and ochre colors infect each frame with a sense of feebleness and opacity. This opacity is deeply felt in the love-hate that develops between Iya and Masha, as each crumbles under her own suffering. Balagov, who began working on the screenplay with his co-writer, Aleksandr Terekhov, focusing mainly on Masha, and only later expanded the story’s scope, keeps the plot and its twists down to minimum. Once Masha decides Iya will carry her baby, there is no steering her from this course. In the scene immediately after Masha learns of Pashka’s fate, the women go carousing on the town. With Masha forcing Iya to follow suit in a sexual escapade, they pair up with two young men——one of which, Sasha (Igor Shirokov), becomes Masha’s gangly paramour. Played with sublime delicacy by Victoria Miroshnichenko (as Iya) and Vasilisa Perelygina (Masha), and joined by a capable supporting cast, the ensemble walks the line between seeking a lifeline, while courting death. This dualism is particularly striking with Masha, whose desire to have another baby is so great that her attitude towards Iya has become manipulative and cruel, and in parts, self-destructive. When the camera sways in one scene, following Masha down a hospital corridor, it conveys both her physical exhaustion and psychological vertigo. Balagov shapes Masha’s desire as a symptom, an impossible dream that infantilizes her. Masha’s relationship with Sasha is childish, the two engaging in horseplay, chasing each other around a dinner table. But the relationship turns toxic as Masha feeds her dream of starting anew as a “proper wife.” At the first family dinner, Masha’s illusion that Sasha can safeguard her future is brutally squashed by his aristocratic family. While Masha must soldier on on her own, men like Sasha are sheltered from the real world. When her hope fails, Masha retreats, battered but not beaten. Her return to Iya is the first step towards her emancipation. Balagov thus captures the double-victimization that women like Masha suffered, as soldiers and as single women. But he also points to the extent to which these hardships helped stir the women’s self-reliance.