Kantemir Balagov’s second feature tackles issues of motherhood, PTSD, and the strive to bring colour into post-WWII life

Savina Petkova on Kantemir Balagov’s ‘Beanpole’ (2019)

The establishing shot of Beanpole / Dylda overlooks an immobile human face, expressionless and catatonic. As the camera slowly descends, it is the chiselled marble face of a woman that has, as her coworker’s state, “frozen again”, exhaling air in a prolonged creek that signals something is wrong. A notion of repetition-compulsion marks this visualisation of post-concussion syndrome as part of a bigger legacy of PTSD which the protagonist Iya (newcomer Viktoria Miroshnichenko) confronts in every step of Beanpole’s narrative. Aside from her Soviet military experience in World War II, Iya is also significantly taller than everyone else, a discrepancy that’s negatively resonated in the film’s title. Clumsiness on a physical and emotional scale permeates this tale of abysmal tragedy set during the first autumn after the war. Historically attentive to the quotidian details of period set design and props, Kantemir Balagov’s new film promises a raw portrait of conflicting emotions that roots deeply into one’s psyche.

Iya is entrusted to take care of a little boy named Pashka (Timofey Glazkov) and her caring, motherly side is depicted in the beginning of the film. As a nurse in a hospital ward, she finds adjusting to daily life troublesome, conveyed through repetitive, neurotic gestures and catatonic episodes — psychosomatic symptoms to cope with the no-less-traumatic present. Soon enough, a string of incidents introduces the second protagonist, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), as a somewhat alter-ego of Iya. Comrades in the war, their peacetime relationship is fiery and ill-fated, their temperaments clashing in everyday situations. The feisty-eyed Masha prefers to hold one’s gaze long and with an inciting sense of curiosity, her character all sparks and fire. Dressed in reds, with her crimson bob-cut, she is a heady, sensual woman, yet she finds solace only in the hope of producing offspring. Perelygina is marvellous in both her outbursts and silent pauses, and her half-smile never truly reveals if she is succumbing to suffering or delighting in it.

In a compelling entanglement of stories, Beanpole strings together not more than four characters, yet all of them are representative of different societal layers, all equally flawed. The stoic doctor Nikolay Ivanovich (Andrey Bykov) keeps hidden an uncomfortable truth when subjected to blackmail and young man Sasha (Igor Shirokov) professes his undying love for Masha only until his party-affiliated family disapproves of the relationship. There is, it seems, little left unbroken in this cinematic world. Without moral pessimism, Balagov lets his characters unfold on their own, occupying a grey zone of morality as the viewer is made witness to all their motivations and questionable deeds. If you’re watching this film, you’re in for some thickly uncomfortable acts. Far from presenting extremism or moral judgements, Balagov is a director with a heightened social consciousness, evident in his first feature Closeness / Tesnota (2017), which traces a real-life story in his hometown of Nalchik, near the Chechnyan border. “I’m sorry about the war”, Masha whispers, an endearing apology possibly alluding to some minor quarrel that must have occurred, yet it resonates strongly as a much-needed confession that no one ever gave us in real life and history.

The world of Beanpole does not coat its daily doings in a musical veil; the score is entirely made up of diegetic sounds, like the clanking of pots or the thuds of people walking. As the days and nights saturate with such quotidian sounds, several narrative cues are accompanied by radio: either love songs or radio plays murmur in the background, and they’re always love-themed. This separation between sound and music serves to show love as something external to the characters’ relations, as much as they strive to grasp it. Yet, this is an endeavour to patch a missing eye or a missing limb: love feels like something of the past. In the present everything and everyone is irrevocably broken.

Beanpole leaves a blistering mark on the spectator with its impeccable production design: towering walls with peeled-off wallpaper, creamy whites, the intensity of its greens even in the ragged sweaters, and the sunlight drenched in ochre. An enchanting whirl of colours dominates the visual field from interior shots to traces of bright green paint in Iya’s hair. The mix and match of a palette made up of cold, slowly desaturating colours reflects both the barrenness of the times, as well as the effort of Leningrad citizens to bring a distraction to their own strenuous existence. Being so meticulous in its formalism, at times the film benumbs its emotional punch in favour of a predetermined trajectory of sought sentimental responses.

In relation to being an abundant treat for the eye (let’s leave it out that the DoP Ksenia Sereda is 25 years old), Beanpole is tactful with its character development and leaves plenty of space for its acting debuts to shine. Both Miroshnichenko and Perelygina give outstanding performances as friends and their tense power dynamic is played out to perfection, leaving their intimate connection as the epicentre of the film. In this historically attentive drama, the personal is privileged to flesh out the possibilities of fiction as healing the wounds of grief, loss, and the agony of having to set the world right again.

Beanpole screened as part of the 63rd BFI London Film Festival and is available to stream on MUBI 11th October 2019.

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.