Russia’s national cinema is paradoxically infamous for both its chilly austerity and its wild expressivity. When it comes to making solemn cinematic allegories for its spiritual state, Russia sometimes seem unmatched. Recent examples like Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless and Kirill Serebrennikov’s The Student have levelled extraordinary yet thematically apposite critiques of the country’s spiritual destitution, both reducing brave viewers to emotional wrecks.
Enter newcomer Kantemir Balagov, whose second feature Beanpole adopts the same allegorical approach to comment on his country’s past (and so present). The big difference here is that the aforementioned filmmakers are in their 50s. Balagov is only 28 years old. That his second film at 28 is Russia’s Oscar submission is incredible. But does his film live up to the hype?
The answer is elusive. The story is set in the ravaged remains of post-war Leningrad, a city where all the dogs have been eaten and people are jumping in front of trams. Young veteran Iya (eponymous Beanpole, played by Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is working as a nurse. She suffers from bouts of PTSD-induced temporary paralysis, a disorder that, in the first of many cruelly drawn out scenes, causes her to smother her friend Masha’s son. What follows is hard to define, except to say that it follows an escalating emotional (il) logic as Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) demands that Iya mother her next child.
Balagov sets this psychodrama against the tumult of a country in absolute turmoil, and thus is able to justifiably suggest (if not fully realise) larger spiritual and political themes. These themes emerge as images and motifs of dialogue that Balagov seems to have glommed onto, motifs of birth after death, mercy and violence, purpose from chaos.
As the film progresses, however, one starts to feel as if trying to parse what Balagov is saying is actually a fool’s errand. Beanpole is a film of non-verbal action, peopled with characters so enigmatic as to verge on the oblique. Whilst Balagov appears keen to present us with a Big Statement Film, the film he would be more passionate about making is gnashing to emerge, and that film is somewhat at odds with the historical and worthy one he appears obliged to have made.
In its best moments, Beanpole lets itself go completely wild. At its best it is indulging in the sexual psychodrama that churns quietly below the surface. The disturbing, confusing relationship between Iya and Masha contains echoes of the parasitic co-dependency and sublimated lust of Persona’s Alma and Elisabet. Masha’s ferocity as she rampages through the film’s latter half provides a thrilling counterpoint to Iya’s inscrutability. Both are mannered, weird performances. If only Balagov could trust himself enough to drop the pretences towards naturalism and embrace this broiling freakiness. It’s this freakiness that seems to be the true heart of the film, and yet it’s sadly stifled. One feels as if this might be due to the expectations of someone involved in the film’s production.
Balagov’s main strength is also his biggest weakness, which is the audacity and risk taking of his youth. This is vigorous, formally bold film making, the kind a younger artist might make in the process of trying to cement their identity and reputation. There are many moments where his close-range camera and the extremity of emotion are like fireworks on the screen. There are, unfortunately, many moments where this approach becomes winsome and arbitrary.
Likewise, the more lurid and sexually violent elements of the film are captured with showboating cinematography- involving itself too much in the onscreen brutality to be either detached or bearing witness. It eventually begins to feel, at best, insensitively pretentious and, at worst, like Balagov creepily indulging in lowbrow instincts he would never admit to. In a film whose sensitivity is developed enough for a scene of silent euthanasia to be a stand out, there is little to justify such nasty elements.
Without a doubt Beanpole is a lovingly crafted, well put together film. Everyone involved has poured big energy into this weird, sad film, and it is an enlivened and enervating thing. It is filled with bold image making and left-field thinking that is always wonderful to look at. Perelygina and Miroshnichenko provide some of the most muscular, intense performances of recent memory.
If Beanpole doesn’t meet its own lofty goals, it is because those goals are not fully realised. If Balagov can refine his more brutal and left-field instincts, and learn a little more discipline and humility, he very well make a film to place among his country’s hefty canon.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.