Russian breakout 'Beanpole' looks and feels like little else

click to enlarge Vasilisa Perelygina, left, and Viktoria Miroshnichenko in Beanpole. - Liana Mukhamedzyanova/Kino Lorber
Liana Mukhamedzyanova/Kino Lorber
Vasilisa Perelygina, left, and Viktoria Miroshnichenko in Beanpole.

Beanpole is currently streaming online as part of Film Lab's Virtual Cinema series on VOD. Tickets can be purchased here.

With its juiced-up emerald and burnt-red interiors, all captured by a gamboling camera and frequently awash in spotty golden light, last year’s Russian breakout Beanpole looks and feels like little else. Director Kantemir Balagov’s headstrong, accomplished second film (outrageously, he’s 28) trails two young women: gangly, spectral, and white-blond Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), whose nickname grants the film its title; and Masha (Vasilia Perelygina), whose more compact, beet-haired form and wily nature offer both deep and surface contrasts. The collision of the pair’s ardors, differences, and overlapping anxieties generate fuel for the film’s heated study of post-Leningrad wartime trauma, reflected in the feuding duality of its glimmering hues.

This conflict, however, tends to be more sensed than spoken. At Beanpole’s 1944 open, Iya’s been sent home from the front to work as a nurse treating wounded soldiers, suffering all the while from concussion-induced paralytic seizures. While there, she’s given the tender task of looking after Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), Masha’s tiny son, while Masha completes her own term of service at the warfront. Without spoiling things, these pressures produce a stark effect which deepens and sharpens the frictions between the two companions (for they cannot truly be considered friends), each struggling in her own manner to survive.

In pursuing this harsh emotional and political reality, Balagov improvises often in an effort to raise the pitch. His camera wheels and dances around glittering apartments, wide lens yawning to catch every last bit of color and light. The leading women burst out in dances, twirls, and odd little spasms — driven as much by emotional turmoil as by Iya’s physical condition. In this, if not his chosen palette, Balagov’s directorial hand sometimes resembles Terrence Malick’s; trusting in a strong cast and resonant setting to provide an engine for his material, the jagged edges of his style, like Malick’s more harmonious ones, can look strangely flat lined up against each other. What results is a consistently unsteady, heated-but-hazy emotional air, and a film that’s a bit bullish in its running time and scenework — especially considering its structure.

Part of the challenge with this is subject, for what Balagov’s exposing is apparent at the start: a morass of pervasive struggle set atop an emotional plateau. By starting at an emotional high point amid a truly awful situation, Balagov leaves himself little place to go. The curlicues of his plot seem, as a result, not to peak or fall, but to trudge, sprint, and sometimes twirl across a boggy but level emotional expanse.

Taken individually, Beanpole’s scenes are often marvelous in their flourishes and emotional excavations, showing facets of character in little shocks of performance and narrative revelation. Private moments, like one of Iya working as Pashka paws at her for attention, become moving for their duration and performances. As Iya, Miroschinchenkof’s repressed, aggrieved, submissive demeanor makes her moving to watch, particularly when she’s the target of Masha’s barbed words and acts of vengeance. To Balagov’s credit, Masha’s motivations and personal history are sketched in fully on a plot level; nevertheless, there’s an extent to which he regards his own characters as mysteries, apparent depths to them he scrabbles at but can’t quite reach.

It’s difficult in watching to not attribute this to gender. Many of the film’s struggles revolve around motherhood, children, and women’s health, and while Balagov bears witness to the social realities facing women in a range of admirable respects, they are not his in the end. While other directors have managed to leap similar empathetic hurdles, he seems unable to properly access his title character’s inner life and mystifies his leading women’s collisions. Though clearly a director equipped with a sincere social conscience, that same family of considerations may have guided him here away from the potentially problematic, leaving him without the kind of point-blank emotionality that would grant his depictions a firmer structure, a more intimate point of view, and perhaps a sharper edge. Where Polish filmmaker Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession tore issues of gender into raw wounds, both emotional and physical, Balagov employs similar knife’s-edge techniques only to retain a guarded air. This sense of remove refines and constricts his presentation, turning the potentially personal into something more distant, politically symmetrical and fair. While stirring, Beanpole’s missing both an eye for structure and the type of vulnerability all its narrative and formal features might suggest. Lacking those, all its beauty means something less.

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