PRINT February 2020



Kantemir Balagov, Beanpole, 2019, 2K video, color, sound, 137 minutes. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko).

KANTEMIR BALAGOV’S BEANPOLE, set in devastated Leningrad just after the end of World War II, commences with an auditory enigma. Under the credits, an odd, intermittent sound emerges, somewhere between an asthmatic rasp and a death rattle, accompanied by a piercing overtone. The film’s first image finally reveals the source: a close-up of a woman’s pallid face, her eyes wide and fixed on nothing, her throat gently spasming as she emits strangulated gasps. She is Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed Beanpole, a nurse in a military hospital who, having been invalided from the front lines with a concussion, suffers from postwar trauma, manifested in spells of extreme dissociation that leave her temporarily catatonic. That tinnitus-like pitch is meant to replicate what Iya hears during one of her paralytic fugues.

The director notes that the Russian term for “beanpole,” dylda, does not necessarily connote extraordinary height but rather “clumsiness, awkwardness, gracelessness,” all of which certainly apply to the ungainly Iya, whose pale attenuation gives her the appearance of an alabaster giraffe. Slightly hunched, as if to fit into both the world and Balagov’s rigorously composed frames, the ethereal and introverted Iya contrasts, perhaps too pointedly, with her best friend, the brash, dark-haired, and considerably shorter Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), a soldier who returns from Berlin, where she has lingered to exact revenge for her own extensive war wounds and for the countless compatriots the Nazis have slaughtered. When Masha discovers that the dear friend in whose care she has left Paschka, her little boy, accidentally smothered him to death during one of her seizures—a harrowing sequence that some find intolerable in its precise, protracted account of the suffocation—the impetuous woman forgoes grief to seek oblivion in a night of revel; she insists Iya join her to cruise the frigid, deserted Leningrad streets in search of sex.

Still from Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, 2019, 2K video, color, sound, 137 minutes. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina).

The dead child will nevertheless haunt the seemingly callous Masha, as she first attempts to get pregnant and then, after discovering that she is infertile from her wartime injuries, forces Iya to try to have a baby in her stead. Balagov’s chronicle of the ensuing power struggle, in which the two women, both of whom have survived unimaginable horror, inflict further injury on each other even as they cleave together for emotional refuge, rises at times to Persona-level intensity, though instead of Bergman’s arsenal of meta-devices and psycho-temporal mystifications, the director maintains a commitment to social realism, historical veracity—every period detail, from the foldable hypodermic needles and authentic Leningrad streetcars to the pentimenti of apartment wallpaper, was fanatically researched and re-created—and a materialist aesthetic. (The film’s indicative sound design is a marvel.)

Balagov’s chronicle rises at times to Persona-level intensity, though instead of Bergman’s arsenal of meta-devices and psycho-temporal mystifications, the director maintains a commitment to social realism, historical veracity, and a materialist aesthetic.

The boyish Balagov, who looks younger than his twenty-eight years and hails from the patriarchal Kabardino-Balkaria region of the Russian Caucasus, seems an unlikely candidate to have made two of the most profoundly intuitive and mature films about women’s experience of the past decade. Ignoring the orthodoxies that proscribe artists from exploring the experience of any other, Balagov based his first feature, Closeness (2017), on the true story of a Jewish family from his hometown of Nalchik whose youngest son was kidnapped along with his fiancée and held for ransom. The Kabardian director explained that his intimate, painstaking portrait of Jewish community and the clan riven by the abduction, which reflects the influence of Balagov’s favorite movie, Marco Bellocchio’s Fists in the Pocket (1965), relied on his memory of a Jewish girlfriend he once had. (The film’s title, whose Russian original suggests tightness or suffocation, serves as aesthetic imperative: Closeness was shot in the squarish 1.37:1 aspect ratio, with a camera that all but adheres to the actors.) Balagov proffers empathy to every character in Closeness, especially the passive, anxiously watchful father of the traumatized family, but he reserves his most penetrating attention for the relationship between the calculating matriarch and her rebellious tomboy offspring, thereby transforming the claustrophobic Closeness into a classic of the mother-daughter film—more Bergman’s Autumn Sonata (1978) than Delmer Daves’s A Summer Place (1959).

Balagov was inspired to make Beanpole by his shattering encounter with The Unwomanly Face of War (2017), an oral history by the Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich that chronicles the experiences of the more than one million Russian women who served on the front lines or the home front during World War II. “This book opened a whole new world for me,” claims the young director, whose interest in his country’s history derives from two of his Russian models: Alexander Sokurov, whose directing workshop Balagov graduated from, and Aleksei German, whose films trace a history of the Soviet Union from the Red Terror through Stalin’s Great Purge and the so-called Great War against Germany to the anti-Semitic “Doctors’ Plot” conspiracy theory, which forms the basis of one of his greatest works, Khrustalyov, My Car! (1998). German’s is a male-centered cinema, Sokurov’s somewhat less so; Balagov, meanwhile, has said, “I am interested in the fates of women,” adding, “especially women who fought in the Second World War.” In an onstage interview when Beanpole screened at the New York Film Festival, the director went so far as to claim that he was exploring his “female side” in the film.

Still from Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, 2019, 2K video, color, sound, 137 minutes. Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina).

In the casting of his two films, Balagov has revealed a formidable ability to discover first-timers and coax performances of immense range and ferocious commitment from them. In Closeness, neophyte Darya Zhovner summons lacerating emotion as the defiant Jewish daughter whose familial mutiny extends to carousing with a Kabardian boyfriend and his druggy buddies, who watch Chechen videos of the torture, mutilation, and beheading of Russian soldiers as bedtime entertainment. (Balagov includes the actual footage, shot during the 1999 Dagestan massacre, which many critics consider an unconscionable breach of ethics.) Roiling with resentment, Zhovner is matched in glowering intensity by another astonishing novice, Olga Dragunova, as her tautly controlling but ultimately helpless mother. Balagov recruited two equally gifted initiates for the leads in Beanpole, whom he found, he insists, on the first day of casting. The performances of Miroshnichenko and Perelygina, both still in acting school at the time of filming and clearly fearless as they expose their bodies and inner beings to escalating extremes of physical and emotional demand, surely rank with Sandrine Bonnaire’s bruising debut in Maurice Pialat’s À nos amours (To Our Loves, 1983)—among the most potent acting arrivals in all cinema.

Working with his phenomenal cinematographer, the twenty-four-year-old Ksenia Sereda, Balagov studied several paintings, including those of Vermeer, to arrive at the film’s visual style. The many sequences in the hospital, whose garish walls seem to have been relegated to a Fauvist decorating brigade, remind one of those Bruegel tableaux that swarm with grotesque faces and capering figures, each acutely individual, each contesting the others for attention, the filmic equivalent being German’s crowded, capacious frames, produced by a restless camera that darts and dollies to capture all manner of incident and character within one ample shot.

“For me, cinema is a place of feelings, rather than thoughts,” Balagov recently stated, indicating the influence of his mentor, the soulful Sokurov, and indeed the young director proves himself a master of capturing complex emotion, as in the many moments when various survivors of the war offhandedly comment on the loss of their children. (The portrait of the hospital’s quietly anguished physician, whose kids have died and who is conscripted to father Iya’s baby, attests to the depth of Balagov’s compassion.) Ironically, though, the director is prone to overthinking, burdening every detail with import: An incidental line about someone who jumped in front of a tram in the film’s first hour sets up an egregious sequence at the very end in which Iya’s perhaps mortal fate generates unnecessary suspense; the film’s schematic color-coding, a device that continues from Closeness, is likewise freighted with needless symbolism, about which the director has said, “I knew that if my film was not stylized, and had dark and gray colors, it will be just another social movie about social problems. I wanted it to be a drama of colors, and I gave each character their own color.” Beanpole was originally conceived to be in black and white, but Balagov’s research indicated that, despite its ruination, postwar Leningrad was full of bright hues. Beanpole’s palette is keyed to ocher, for Balagov the “color of trauma,” which he assigns to Masha, and green, the “color of hope and the ability to give life,” which he allots to Iya. (The duo end up wearing Christmas-colored sweaters in yet another Persona-like mergence.)

In the film’s most incisive sequence, a fraught dinner during which Masha bitterly jousts with her prospective mother-in-law, a haughty relic of the Soviet bourgeoisie determined to stifle the relationship between the ex-soldier and her impish son, the two women appear as mirror images across the table and across an age and class divide, both red-haired and clad in shades of green. (The director misses no opportunity for precision detailing: A wide shot reveals a jade-hued glass dish that anchors the image, placed at the midpoint between the two women.) The elegant matriarch, in a stylish moss-green outfit with matching emerald brooch, mixes poison with praise as she compliments her antagonist. “That color really suits you,” she comments of the ill-fitting, biliously virid dress that Masha has borrowed for the occasion—the young woman will later stain it with red when anxiety triggers a nosebleed—recalling the moment in Closeness when a neighbor asks, “Back from some carnival?” of the tomboy’s hideous striped gown that her mother has forced her to wear for an engagement party. The editing of this acidulous exchange is consummate, the camera battening on the two adversaries in intensified, airless shot-countershot and largely excluding the two male onlookers. Here, Balagov attains a pitch of mastery that fills one with apprehensive anticipation for his next film—“a male story,” he promises.

James Quandt is Senior Programmer of TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.