Kantemir Balagov enters the big leagues with this bleak and beautiful look at two friends in post-war Leningrad
With its nicotine-stained cinematography and scenes played out in dimly-lit, claustrophobic spaces, Beanpole makes for unapologetically bleak viewing. It’s a film that asks what we do once our lives have been torn apart by the horrors of battle, and how our purposes – our very reasons to live – are made murky by the fog of war.
Written and directed, remarkably, by 27-year-old Kantemir Balagov, Beanpole is set in 1945 Leningrad in the aftermath of World War II, and concerns Iya (Viktoria Mironshnichenko), the titular “Beanpole,” who appears to us pale and washed out by her experiences on the front. Now working as a nurse in a hospital for wounded soldiers, she suffers from PTSD, which manifests as moments where she freezes and begins to emit strange gargling sounds. After a horrific tragedy strikes and her young son is killed, she is reunited with battle-scarred Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who returns from Berlin and announces that this film – despite its title – is to be a two-hander. Here, we learn the child we believed to be Iya’s is in fact Masha’s, and slowly, insidiously, this woman – holding her friend responsible – begins to bend the other to her will.
Rich production design, painterly compositions, and woozy camerawork come together to evoke a city lost in a post-war lethargy. Rendered with a level of detail that lends it a great sense of historical authenticity and a tone that makes it all seem so dream-like at the same time, Beanpole feels both fuzzy and crystal clear – a manifestation, perhaps, of the strangeness of returning to regular life after years of trauma. As Iya, Mironshnichenko perfectly captures somebody whose senses have been dulled by their experiences: child-like and naive, she seems to float through every frame, ghost-like and ethereal. Perelygina, as Masha, is a revelation: scary and sympathetic, every smile and every glance suggests years of emotional conflict – of joy, sadness, and a total loss of what it’s like to feel normal. It is astonishing to discover that this is Perelygina’s debut performance – her infinitely layered turn would befit an actor with decades of experience. Beanpole‘s most riveting moments occur as these two women simply stare at one another from the confines of their apocalyptic apartment; saying nothing, entire conversations seem to play out in their looks alone, as though their experiences have left them able to read each another’s deepest, darkest thoughts.
Beanpole‘s overall effect is ever so slightly lessened by the excessive nature of Masha’s machinations, and the film is perhaps too slow to arrive at any sort of climax (if you can even call its ambiguous ending a climax). As a depiction of a society doing its utmost to recover from an unimaginable tragedy, though, Beanpole confirms its young director as a filmmaker of immense vision. It sends you away, bleary-eyed and reeling, as though struck by shrapnel.
By: Tom Barnard
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This film was screened for the press as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019. For more information and showtimes for this year’s festival, head to our dedicated page.
This post was categorised in Reviews.