Director: Kantemir Balagov
Cast: Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, Andrey Bykov
Watch Beanpole online in the UK: 11th October
Kantemir Balagov’s impressive second feature took home the Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard award for Best Director, and deservedly so. At the age of 27, Balagov displays an incredible gift for suspenseful storytelling with a quietly explosive drama set in Leningrad at the end of World War II. It plays out as a captivating period piece closely examining two women dealing with post traumatic stress, as they attempt to rebuild their lives among the wreckage.
The title of the film refers to Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a strikingly tall, lean blonde woman, who is introduced frozen to the spot and wheezing in the laundry room of the infirmary where she works. She eventually comes out of this spell with no explanation as to why. That comes far later on with a tense reveal that also explains the manipulative behaviour of her fiery-haired friend, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who returns from the frontline to live with her.
Balagov gradually introduces his characters through their actions. He observes Iya’s days, as she tends to wounded soldiers, including the paralysed Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev), and cares for a malnourished little boy, Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), at home. These early scenes play out with a disarming warmth, the amber-stained walls and corridors comfortably hugging Iya’s figure, as she cradles and nurtures those around her. An old man even comments on the significance of Iya’s name, explaining that it means Iris, and how it perfectly mirrors how delicate she is. Her experiences in the war have left both physical and mental wounds but as well as being fragile she possesses a strength that is further tested when Masha turns up and disrupts her routine.
Themes of sex and power bubble beneath an enticing surface where the characters do an elegant dance around their suffering and sadness. Balagov hides their motivations and pain beneath a hopeful and eye-catching exterior lulling the viewer into a false sense of security with humour and gorgeous green and yellow hues. As he digs deeper things take a turn, at first to confusing conduct and then to shocking revelation. Balagov places his camera in unexpected places and upturns expectations at every point. In a sex scene, he focuses on the might of Masha’s calf muscle and, in the next, as naked women gather in a wash room, he gravitates to a scar on her tummy.
The two actors at the centre of the film, Miroshnichenko and Perelygina, are impeccable and strike up a fascinating dynamic between their characters. Their unbreakable bond is imbued with both faithful devotion and cruel menace. Miroshnichenko plays Iya with a defensive childlike innocence and, at times, the flirtatious glimmer in Perelygina’s eyes feels almost like a weapon.
Without wanting to give too much away, the stifling of female voices and the horror they endured in the conflict is prised apart and placed under the microscope with furious indignation. With Beanpole, Balagov explores the impact of war from a fresh perspective and it all unfolds with an exacting economy that bit by bit reveals permanent damage.
Beanpole is available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription, until 10th November.