Films don’t get much grimmer than Kantemir Balagov’s devastating first feature Closeness, which premiered in Cannes two years ago, but he provides worthy competition with Beanpole. Set in a ravaged Leningrad just after the end of World War II, this intense drama centers upon a mutual complicity between two women that could scarcely be more intimate. But the wages of the war play upon all the characters in ways that warp and thwart any attempt at emotional normalcy; the fact that their side won does virtually nothing to alleviate the psychological, emotional and physical damage. It’s a demanding sit, a film both rigorous and indulgent, rewarding and aggravating. Festivals will be welcoming, but paying customers scarce.
If Closeness didn’t make it clear enough, Beanpole establishes without question that Balagov is not one to miss any opportunity to turn the screws ever tighter on his characters, who are besieged on every imaginable front. Yes, the Russians held off the Nazis, but the costs to the survivors remain as yet incalculable. Although we know better, the little we see of the city is in decent shape; it’s the characters’ interior damage that is the focus here, a condition examined through a pair of women who are lucky to be alive but whose precarious equilibrium, judgment and potential for ever regaining stability become the film’s preoccupation.
A somber, disturbing look at women survivors of the siege of Leningrad.
At a large hospital, people with all manner of maladies remain under care in the immediate aftermath of a very long siege and ultimate victory. Towering blonde Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko, resembling a cross between Tilda Swinton and Gwendoline Christie) dotingly looks after a little boy, whose real mother is her close friend, the much shorter, dark-haired Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina). It is more than startling, then, when Iya seems to extinguish the youngster’s life; one can only assume there are extenuating circumstances.
The mood and ambiance of the seemingly well run facility strike a curious note, one arguably plausible under the circumstances; despite a raft of patients left with dreadful wartime injuries and lifelong disabilities, a muted sense of giddiness prevails, one that communicates in an unstated way the hopefulness of the citizens in the wake of victory.
But perhaps this just puts a good face on things, as the bottom line with the characters who remain in the foreground suggests a weariness, despair and desperation that nothing will ever alter; the joy of victory can’t compare in weight to the molecular devastation these survivors have endured.
Although an empathy is felt for characters who will likely never truly recover from their wartime ordeals, there is also a prevailing mercilessness in the film’s take on human foibles that repeatedly remind of Kubrick. Masha, in particular, repeatedly seems to convince herself of a future that’s simply not possible, while the seemingly more realistic Iya still has her moments of delusional irrationality.
Still, this is far from being a conventional film. It’s more composed and elegant than Closeness, even as it shares a focus on the enormous emotional and tactical compromises its female protagonists are forced to make.
Repeatedly, the women put each other into the position of serving as surrogates for one another, a move not synchronous with emotional stability, and sex as repeatedly portrayed here would seem to rank significantly lower on the pleasure meter than a difficult bowel movement.
Still, for all the pain on display, Balagov demonstrates blossoming virtuosity in his bold staging and long-take preferences, even if what he is focusing upon usually ranges from the uncomfortable to the ghastly. The sustained, unflinching camera eye often pays strong dramatic dividends, but the downside of this approach lies in the inability to cut within scenes if they begin to sag and lose their force, which sometimes happens; there are definitely stretches that outlive their usefulness and/or could use punching up when the director’s approach has made this impossible.
The lead actresses are powerful as women who may or may not have an act two to their lives based on the severity of what has happened to them during the war. Both of the director’s features are about young women forced to take matters into their own hands in the most elemental ways, while the men are either brutal or broken, useless.
The new pic is deliberately paced and has its longueurs, but it reaffirms the muscular talent of its director, who is only 27. There are many more stories where this came from.
Production companies: AR Content, Non-Stop Productions
With: Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, Timofey Glazkov, Andrey Bykov, Igor Shirokov, Konstantin Balakirev, Ksenia Kutepova, Olga Dragunova
Director: Kantemir Balagov
Screenwriters: Kantemir Balagov, Alexander Terekhov
Producers: Alexander Rodnyansky, Sergey Melkomov
Executive producer: Natalya Gorina
Director of photography: Ksenia Sereda
Production designer: Sergey Ivanov
Costume designer: Olga Smirnova
Editor: Igor Litoninskiy
Music: Evgueni Galperne
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)