Writer-Director Kantemir Balagov shares a grim vision of post-war Leningrad
by Steve Murray
February 27, 2020
One of the darkest jokes in writer-director Kantemir Balagov’s award-winning Beanpole is that his life-is-shit, miserabilist Russian melodrama looks so good. It’s a visual plunge into saturated greens and reds, the kind we haven’t seen since Amélie — the 2001 French romp that’s the emotional antithesis of this new movie.
Opening Feb. 28 at Atlanta’s Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, Beanpole comes to us garlanded with critical hosannas. So did Brit Joanna Hogg’s pseudo-memoir The Souvenir from last year. I’m still apologizing to people who had to watch that one. In other words, I’m a critic myself, but approach critical opinion with caution sometimes. Do the same with the Cannes Film Festival, which gave Beanpole two awards last year. (Don’t forget that old, true cliché about the French adoration of Jerry Lewis.)
For the record, I appreciate Beanpole much more than I did The Souvenir. It’s just that I am reluctant to actually recommend it to anyone, except hardcore cineastes who wear their hours weathering the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Béla Tarr as a badge of tortured status.
OK, so, the movie: Beanpole is the nickname given to Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko, in a brave and committed performance), a towering young woman with hair and skin so translucent, you can almost see through her to the deep greens-and-reds of the wallpaper. She works as a nurse in ravaged Leningrad in the first autumn after the end of WWII. The patients are mainly men, maimed or half-crazed from the war that likewise brutalized their city.
Iya herself fought as an anti-aircraft gunner, but was sent home suffering a concussion – the source of moments that cause Iya to “freeze” in place, unable to move or speak or respond to anyone around her. The only bit of joy in her life comes from her little boy, Pashka, who we learn isn’t actually her little boy, and is out of the picture for most of the movie.
In his place comes Iya’s old gunner comrade Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina, impish and manipulative, and the best thing in the movie). The core of Beanpole is the polar attraction-repulsion of these two old friends and new veterans, trying to find a place for both their grief, loss and yearning. Mercy killings, a lot of spilled booze, a desperate same-sex kiss, and some brutally unsexy sex scenes follow. The pace is punishingly, intentionally slow, with lines of dialogue emerging as though from an echo chamber. Still, director Balagov, who is not yet 30, delivers some memorable scenes. He’ll be worth watching as he grows up a little and becomes more interested in communicating with audiences rather than inflicting his aesthetic upon them.
The last scene of Beanpole unfolds between Iya and Masha, an unlikely moment of hope. Their exchange is a little like Sonya’s bittersweet vision of a useful future, which she shares with her fellow loser, Uncle Vanya, trying to cheer themselves up in Chekhov’s play. But with Beanpole, you have to question the inborn cruelty of a filmmaker who wants to give his characters a hint of hope only after he drags them (and us) through hell.
Steve Murray is an award-winning arts journalist who has written about film, theater, books, and television for a quarter century.
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