Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Russian Wunderkind Kantemir Balagov Reveals the Unwomanly Face of War in Beanpole

Tangled up in green / Kino Lorber
(Kantemir Balagov, 2020, Russia, 137 minutes) 

Beanpole, which takes place in Leningrad during the winter of 1945, isn't a war movie; it's more like a home front or post-war movie. As such, 28-year-old filmmaker Kantemir Balagov (Closeness) focuses on women more than men. Like Little Women, which takes place during the Civil War, it's permeated by a scarcity of food and more crucially in this case: sanity.

Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a nurse, is taller than everyone around her--men included--and supernaturally pale. Even her eyebrows and eyelashes are white-blonde. She looks after men injured in the war, but she has an injury of her own, an epilepsy-like post-concussion syndrome resulting from her job as an anti-aircraft gunner (in the Film Club episode on Beanpole, Russian-born critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky cites the period term shell shock). Sometimes Iya just...checks out. Her body continues to function, but her mind goes elsewhere, representing a danger to herself and others.

The ward of a tiny boy named Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), Iya lives in a building bustling with hungry people, including an elderly gent eager for companionship (she shrugs him off). Shortly after Balagov has established the contours of her life, Iya's gunner associate, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina, an inexperienced actor like Miroshnichenko) returns from the front to collect her son. Auburn-haired Masha, compact where Iya is towering, finds that the world she left behind has irrevocably changed. Instead of making a fuss, she appears to roll with it, but she's actually hatching a plan.

Iya in Vermeerian repose / Kino Lorber
Masha has a Mona Lisa smile that makes it hard to tell if she's happy, pretending to be happy, or if she might possibly be a sociopath. After unpacking her things and settling in, she expresses an urge to go dancing. When the women find the dance hall closed, they hook up with two young men instead. Things do not go well.

Though she lacks medical training, Masha gets a job at the hospital as an attendant. She and Iya report to Nikolay (Andrey Bykov, very good), a pragmatic widower who spends a lot of time giving patients, like quadriplegic father Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev), bad news. He gives Masha bad news, too--mostly to confirm what she already knows.

The women's domestic situation is complicated by the reappearance of Sasha (Igor Shirokov), one of the young men from the night on the town. After running into Masha at the hospital while visiting with his philanthropist mother, he shows up at their door. To Iya's irritation, Masha lets him into their lives, possibly because she simply appreciates the fresh produce he's able to provide. Just as pragmatic as the doctor, Masha also sets up an illicit arrangement with Nikolay in order to recreate something she lost.

Though Beanpole is hardly a predictable film, it's a given that certain things won't end well, not least because Iya's discomfort around men suggests that she's either inexperienced, uninterested, or some combination of the two. Balagov, who took inspiration from Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich's 1985 book, The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II, doesn't spell it out explicitly, but it becomes increasingly clear that both women suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. They may have had issues before the war, but now they're threatening to become pathologies, and this isn't a time or a place where therapy is accessible, so they cling to each other in ways that could do more harm than good.

I'm so green / Kino Lorber

Beanpole is strikingly shot and framed by 24-year-old cinematographer Ksenia Sereda who uses color as a narrative device. Though many scenes take place at night or by candlelight, vivid red, green, and ochre add beauty to what is, essentially, a pretty grim story. In his director's statement, Balagov explains, "When I started to study the diaries of people who lived during that time, I learned that despite all the hardships and the devastation, they were surrounded by bright colors every day."

Color grows in importance as Masha paints the apartment green and borrows a green dress to impress a possible benefactor--and Iya wears a green sweater in most every scene. The color represents the potential for renewal in the women's shattered lives, but Balagov, winner of the best director award at Cannes, is enough of a realist to suggest that a storybook happy ending isn't likely for either one. But nor is a Russian-novel tragedy a guarantee. If the look of his film threatens to overwhelm the content, the filmmaker stays on the right side of that equation more often than not.

Beanpole plays SIFF Cinema Uptown Feb 14 - 16. Click here for details. 

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