LFF 2019: Beanpole Review
Kantemir Balagov’s brutally bleak second film, Beanpole, shows us the lives of two women struggling to readjust to life in a devastated Leningrad at the end of World War II. It’s the sort of tough watch that some won’t be able to sit through in its entirety, due to Balagov’s unwillingness to blink and shield his audience from the grim reality of his characters.
Over a million people died during the siege of Leningrad with the conflict lasting a gruelling 872 days. One of the survivors is a young nurse called Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), who has returned from the frontlines were she fought as a solider and now works in a Leningrad hospital treating wounded Red Army soldiers. Most people playfully call her Beanpole, due to her tall, angular frame and her quiet disposition belies the psychological scars collected during her time fighting the Germans.
The film opens on a close-up of Iya lost in a trance, her mind gripped by the horrific memories of war. Wisely, Balagov doesn’t reveal her internalised trauma and instead leaves us to watch the way these seizures damage her life in the present day. But there is no way you can be prepared for the devastation that she – and we – are subjected to within the first 20 minutes. While playing with a three-year-old boy (who we assume to be her son) at home a tragedy occurs that is almost unbearable to watch. There is only a single cut in the scene and quite how it was executed is one thing, but sitting through it is an ordeal all in itself. The moment is a lot to take in and it takes a while to settle back into the flow of the narrative when Iya comes back home from the hospital.
It turns out that the boy’s mother was actually a woman called Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who after returning from fighting in the war hears of her son’s death. The two women are much closer than the friendship façade they present to the outside world, although the slightly manic Masha is prepared to manipulate Iya into having a child to replace the one she lost. An apparent shrapnel wound prevents Masha from conceiving again and she believes Iya owes her for failing to look after her son.
There is something reminiscent of László Nemes’ Son of Saul in the texture of Balagov’s second feature that also reveals itself in the immediacy of his camera movement. We are entrenched in Iya’s perspective as the two women’s toxic bond continues to send them both spiralling downwards. After what they’ve seen during the war, establishing a sense of normality is impossible, yet however disturbing events become for them you are never anything but utterly engrossed. The pacing is slow with scenes in no hurry to wrap up and thanks to Sergei Ivanov’s set design and DP Ksenia Sereda’s photography Leningrad feels tangibly within touching distance.
The hospital Iya works in features all of the characters we interact with, such as the paralysed soldier pleading to be put out of his misery by army doctor Nikolai Ivanovich, further expanding on the torment felt by countless families across the city. The son of a party official, Sasha (Igor Shirokov), lives a more privileged life and tries to win the affections of Masha unaware of just how mentally damaged she has become. While there are one or two contrivances that tie some of these threads together a little too tidily, Balagov displays such authority in his storytelling they are easy to forgive.
The performances of the two leads are extremely impressive and it is all the more surprising that this is the debut feature for both actresses. The camera rarely allows them room to breathe, often fixated on long pauses between dialogue in scenes that linger and would test even the most experienced of performers. But Mironshnichenko and Perelygina never flinch, remaining composed and deeply involved with two characters who now only seem able to filter love through their damage.
Two years ago Bagalov’s Closeness collected similar plaudits across the festival circuit and Beanpole confirms his undeniable talent as a director. It has also surprisingly been selected to represent Russia in the international section during the upcoming Oscars, which given its gay themes stands in stark contrast to the ignorance so often spewed by the government. There’s likely to be a selective audience drawn towards this in cinemas but it delivers two hours of rich, but somewhat testing, reward.
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