Beanpole

 

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In Kantemir Balagov’s new Russian drama, two female soldiers attempt to rebuild their lives after the Second World War.

 

Beanpole

  

When given the opportunity to discuss Beanpole, the first words I use to describe it are “bleak”, “depressing”, and “uncomfortable”. The inevitable response is always “so, it’s Russian, then!”  

 

Kantemir Balagov’s sophomore effort certainly plays into the pervasive cultural idea that Russia is a dreary and melancholic place, but it does so with a purpose. In contrast with the contemporary American art-house landscape that tends more often than not to venture dangerously close to “misery porn”, Beanpole avoids feeling exploitative, claiming authenticity to its tragic story and tone through historical context.  

 

Taking place in 1945 in Leningrad, it tells the story of Iya (the titular Beanpole, so nicknamed because of her uncommon height) and Masha, two female soldiers attempting to make a life for themselves in the aftermath of the Second World War. The complex relationship between the women serves as the core of the narrative. As we spend time with the women, both together and apart from each other, we are given context to their past and present actions, which at first might seem alien and confusing, but are clarified as the story unfolds.  

 

The film works for a multitude of reasons. The script is tight and purposeful. Balagov and co-writer Aleksander Terekhov know what information to share and precisely when to share it to keep the audience engaged. The production design and cinematography also help create a tense and uneasy atmosphere in a unique way. The film’s colour palette is comprised of mainly faded reds, greens, and whites, traditionally cheerful and magical colours associated most commonly with Christmas. Rather than paint Leningrad as an inherently hopeless place, Beanpole presents it as a place that hope has abandoned, even as the characters attempt to cling onto the last remnants of life and joy, perhaps even in denial of the current state of their reality: a reality that becomes unavoidable as the story builds menacingly to its climax, the action trudging along slowly and steadily, much like a soldier itself.  

 

None of this would be as effective without a solid foundation, though, which is provided by the very first shot. Iya, suffering from an ambiguous form of PTSD, occasionally freezes in place, unable to move aside from a slight twitching in her head and neck. The only sound she’s able to make is a low groan, reminiscent of Takashi Shimizu’s iconic The Grudge. It’s powerful, magnetic, and disturbing, but most importantly effective in letting the audience know that the story will be uncomfortable.  

 

There are several shocking and brutal scenes, including those of death and sexual assault. The film presents them as honestly as possible, leading into and resulting from the actions the characters take in order to achieve their clearly defined goals, so it never feels gratuitous or unearned. None of the misery feels manufactured nor cheap, which is perhaps the film’s most impressive quality. It doesn’t feel like a story written in order to be dispiriting, but rather as an honest portrayal of history and the impossible circumstances that many people (especially women) found themselves in, and continue to find themselves in today.  

 

The film poses the perhaps clichéd question of “what would you do to survive?”, but builds upon that in compelling and creative ways. As the characters make mistakes, call in debts, and manipulate each other, the question transforms ever gracefully into “what would you do to ensure your life is worth living?” While Beanpole isn’t for everyone, those who can stomach the distress are sure to get much out of it.

 

Original title: Dylda.

 

CALEB JOHN CUSHING

 

Cast: Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, Konstantin Balakirev, Andrey Bykov, Igor Shirokov, Kseniya Kutepova, Alyona Kuchkova, Timofey Glazkov.

 

Dir Kantemir Balagov, Pro Natalia Gorina, Sergey Melkumov, Ellen Rodnianski and Alexander Rodnyansky, Screenplay Kantemir Balagov and Aleksandr Terekhov, Ph Kseniya Sereda, Pro Des Sergey Ivanov, Ed Igor Litoninskiy, Music Evgueni Galperine, Costumes Olga Smirnova.

 

Non-Stop Productions/AR Content-Kino Lorber/MUBI.

130 mins. Russia. 2019. Rel: 3 October 2019. No Cert.