Kantemir Balagov’s sophomore feature examines two women’s traumatic, toxic relationship in the wake of World War II
Russian writer/director Kantemir Balagov’s second feature follows Leningrad hospital worker Iya in the months immediately following the end of World War II. Iya is known as “Beanpole” to her coworkers — tall and slender with white hair, but prone to sudden catatonic fits, Iya often resembles a porcelain statue with hastily-repaired cracks. Much like others through the film, Iya’s wartime trauma isn’t revealed, one ambiguous note among many as Balagov navigates his characters through the emotional rubble of resuming civilian life. An accident removes Iya from Pashka, the young boy in her care — the child’s real mother is Masha, Iya’s wartime companion, who returns to tragedy fresh from her last tour of duty. Iya and Masha are brought closer, though — and Iya gets Masha a job in her hospital helping care for the soldiers still convalescing from their final hollow victories. As the film progresses, Masha fixates on her desires to have another child — which Iya feels driven to assist with at all costs out of an increasingly toxic combination of guilt and desire.
There are many recent films that deal with the sacrifices made in war, or the struggle to adjust to civilian life after chaos. Beanpole, though, takes a remarkably fresh and heartbreaking approach to life during peacetime. Here, Balagov muddies those clashing reactions to trauma — of steadfast perseverance and selflessness with crippling, explosive repression. Masha justifies intense drive to have a child by way of Iya as both a method of moving past her own tragedy as well as a way to find renewed purpose. Iya, seeing herself as the source of both Masha’s pain and happiness, relents to her own ruin. Their relationship draws others in like a bug light — their head doctor, a similarly selfless man looking forward to an end to taking care of others; a teenager who falls in love with Masha despite his power in their disturbingly transactional relationship for food; and a solder, permanently paralyzed from the front, who pleads for relief alongside his wife, who stares down her own future of enforced sacrifice with steely-eyed determination. There is an endless toxicity to the web of selflessness at Beanpole’s core, most of it borne of circumstances that dangle as much within the characters’ control as it doesn’t.
The film’s set in a Russian past often idealized in hollow platitudes espoused by its government, ones that find their origins here as government officials thank wounded solders and ensure their struggles will never be forgotten. The rewards of asking others to sacrifice themselves are often fruitless, and often tools meant for further ends by the characters who crave them. The ones who sacrifice are mainly left with the memories of what was endured — something that their supplicants minimize or ignore entirely. Beanpole’s an often disturbing, heartbreaking film that makes use of our privileged viewpoint as an audience member — to see a conflict from its multiple jagged edges, and to pull the cloth away that divides self-interest and genuine empathy.
Fresh from a successful festival run (including both the Un Certain Regard and Un Certain Regard — Best Director prizes at Cannes) and its shortlisting for the Best International Film Oscar, Kino Lorber brings Beanpole’s multifaceted melancholy home on Blu-ray and DVD.
Kino Lorber presents Beanpole in a 1.85:1 1080p HD transfer, with 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo Russian audio tracks. Optional English subtitles accompany the feature.
Awash in a palate of red and brown with shocking splashes of green, Balagov infuses the bleak postwar urban decay of Beanpole with surprising vibrancy and urgency. The Blu-ray’s picture quality retains the clashing colors of DP Ksenia Sereda and Balagov’s frame with crisp, fine detail–notably the fine grain of plaster in crumbling walls and the frays in hand knit sweaters. A favorite frame has bright, shining green paint dripping down swaths of stained patterned wallpaper — a hopeful attempt to start fresh with the details of the past equally breaking out underneath, refusing to be covered up.
Sound design runs across an noticeably broad spectrum, ranging from the mute tension of Iya’s episodes to the bustling chaos of Leningrad city streets. Most impressive is the stark aural contrast of the film’s dialogue to other diegetic sound, as if the world waits furtively for what the characters are going to say next.
- Interview with Kantemir Balagov: Recorded during Beanpole’s festival run, the writer-director discusses his focus on female protagonists through his two features, how he seized the opportunity to direct features from YouTube shorts, and his attraction to films set in the past.
- Trailers for Beanpole and Balagov’s first film, Tesnota.
Beanpole is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.