Beanpole, directed by Kantemir Balagov, resembles what Lars von Trier might have produced if he developed human empathy and compassion halfway through one of his films. What starts off as a gorgeously shot yet thoroughly uncomfortable film slowly morphs into something heartbreaking, if not slightly melodramatic. With a pair of note-perfect performances and direction that is nothing short of prodigious, Beanpole is an awe-inspiring film that is as gorgeous as it is unnerving.
Iya Sergueeva (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is a nurse in 1945 Leningrad. Her tall and lanky body quits on her from time to time. Without warning, she stares blankly and lightly twitches, resembling a fish unsure of it cares about not being able to breathe. Iya’s quiet and subservient demeanor helps her and her six-year-old “son” Pashka (Timofey Glazkov) attempt to survive in the demolished and derelict post-war Russia. Iya has been watching Pashka while his birth mother is at war. During one of her seizure-like spells, Iya accidentally smothers and kills Pashka. Soon after, Pashka’s birth mother, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), comes back from the front line. Suffering from both the post-traumatic stress of war and the shock from the death of her son, Masha starts to emotionally shut down. She demands that Iya make amends for killing Pashka by getting pregnant and giving up the child. As Masha gets more and more controlling, Iya starts must deal with her friend’s ever-tightening grip.
Beanpole is an absolutely masterful picture. It is hard to believe this is director Kantemir Balagov’s second film as he shows skills far beyond his years. He is able to weave the moral lows of Lars von Trier and Yorgos Lanthimos with a humane tenderness that neither director has been able to show. The cinematographer Ksenia Sereda is able to work pure magic out of her digital photography, bathing the film in a green pallor that wouldn’t seem out of place in early period Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The cinematography is yet another example of how shooting on digital can come close or even match the lively grainy movement of shooting on film.
The performances of both Perelygina and Glazkov are marvelous. Glazkov, all angles, and hunches exude an almost ghostly image. She both overshadows those around her, and yet occupy all space as delicately as curtains blowing from a light breeze. The moments when Iya enters her sickness spells are a wonderful example of underplaying a disability for maximum effect. They grab her so suddenly and debilitatingly that viewers are able to feel Iya’s complete lack of control in a way that few other presentations of unpredictable illness could hope to achieve. Perelygina is absolutely frightening as Masha, a woman who has been so emotionally blunted by exhaustion that she seems almost unable to connect to those around her. Perelygina plays Masha with such a delicate mix of childlike immaturity and world-weary detachment that even in her darkest and most damaging moments we feel sorry for her. Parallels can be made between Perelygina’s Masha and Stellan Skarsgard’s demanding husband in Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. While both characters are manipulating those close to them into sexual situations, Masha seems to be commanding her friend from a place of sheer emotional emptiness, as opposed to Skarsgard’s more purely thematic portrayal. As the film progresses and we start to learn more about Masha’s past, Perelygina’s performance blossoms from a hardened piece of coal to a withering flower. She changes from a character who could easily be seen as evil into something delicate and longing. It is no easy feat and Perelygina completely nails it.
There are moments in Beanpole where the melodrama becomes too much. The repetition of thematic notes and characterizations imbued in Beanpole lessen some of the film’s emotional impacts. There are stretches in the middle where Masha’s demands become so manipulative and vile that it is difficult to feel much pity for her. When the film attempts to explain her callousness, it feels slightly forced with not enough previous hints to justify her emotional detachment. This may be one of the small missteps that came from Balagov’s developing artistry. Still, the fact that the situations that Masha puts Iya through never feel deprived leaves us with a feeling of unease instead of sheer repulsion. The rumblings of a truly dreadful melodrama are lurking and ignored through much of the film, which is much more than could be said for similar filmmakers, let alone those filmmakers at the beginning of their careers.
Beanpole is a visual marvel that puts Kantemir Balagov on the short-list of directors to watch. Coupled with the genius production elements and two stunning performances, it is a film whose inky blackness pulls the color out of your face. It is a bold and commanding film that, like Iya’s condition, grabs out with a slowly tightening grip that won’t let go.