Beanpole first look: life, and beauty, persist after the siege of Leningrad

Kantemir Balagov’s extraordinary second film depicts the febrile friendship of two nursing women in a WWII Soviet hospice with impressive rigour and poetry.

Beanpole premieres in the UK on 3 October 2019 at the BFI London Film Festival

Caspar Salmon

Viktoria Miroshnichenko as Iya in Beanpole (Dylda)

Viktoria Miroshnichenko as Iya in Beanpole (Dylda)

Kantemir Balagov’s second film starts with a fixed shot of a tall woman in a state of catatonia, standing upright, gazing blankly into the middle distance and emitting a series of nervous little grunts and mouth-clicks. Her colleagues look on impassively as they wash laundry in this immaculate opening scene which, with its bustle, texture and vivid detail, sets the tone for the rest of the film. Among Balagov’s many talents is his ability to stage evocative recreations – and his painstaking depiction of a hospice in Leningrad after the siege, crammed with battered bodies and souls, fairly bristles with life in a way that may owe something to the dysfunctional chaos of Alexei German.

Iya, the ‘beanpole’ of the film’s title, is to be joined on the ward by her febrile and impetuous friend Masha, whose young son Pashka she has been looking after as if her own. The exact nature of the bonds that tie the women, whose dependency on one another is evidently a source of solace and pain to both, is left deliberately ambiguous here. Certainly, Iya appears to be averse to men (in one extraordinary scene a man disappears with her for what we assume will be a tryst, and reappears some time later with a broken arm), and it’s unclear to what extent Masha uses men for her benefit or for pleasure. Masha, unhinged by the loss of her son and god knows what other unknown horrors (the film was inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s book The Unwomanly Face of War, an oral history of some of the million women who served in the Red Army), subjects her companion to the trial of producing another child for her, with the aid of a doctor whom she blackmails.

While Beanpole’s subject matter is lacerating, and the film doesn’t exactly pull punches, Balagov’s mode is not miserabilist. There’s a deep and inviting poetry to the director’s mise-en-scène throughout, and his storytelling is unimpeachable for its reserve and delicacy.

That poetry is to be found in the film’s extraordinarily tactile pictures, which seize hair and skin in shots of glowing light; in Balagov’s compositions too, which reframe our world in surprising, heartstopping ways. For instance an early scene in which Iya tenderly sluices Pashka in a bathtub, his twiggy, alabaster limbs filmed from above, displays this sensitivity, this eye for reconfiguring the familiar.

One example of Balagov’s knack for narrative: in a remarkable sequence where a government official visits the hospital to address the patients and hand out presents, an ex-soldier is heard clapping off-camera, dementedly, at a point too early in the speech. The camera finally arrives on this beautiful man, his face beaming maniacally as he beats his hands together; his frantic applause has re-opened a wound in his chest, and he is led away. Balagov punctures the officialdom at play, tells us about madness, gives us backstory and invites us to imagine a future for this damaged youngster, in one fell swoop.

Everywhere Balagov displays this ability to reveal character in stupefying ways, such as when Masha, fearing Iya has killed herself, does not hesitate for a second to look under the wheels of a tram to identify the mangled body: this tells us so much about her tenacity, and, perhaps, what she has already beheld.

Throughout, the young director conjures frames of extraordinary beauty, which are often replete with rusty ochres and deep reds and greens. This arresting photography gives the movie a further depth, helping to offset its terse, twisted emotions: the wretched silences and freighted glances in Balagov’s writing are all the more piercing for being so cosseted by his image-making.

That Beanpole excels in so many discrete areas – we haven’t even spoken of its resourceful set design, or of Balagov’s assured direction of actors – is testament to the rigour and imagination of this gifted young director, whose psychological acuity and formal control over his sprawling story mark him as a valuable artist.


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