By Thomas Puhr.
You hear before you see anything: a muffled gurgling noise accompanies the black screen over which the opening credits play. This disorienting audio elicits several questions (Who, or what, is making these noises? Are they sounds of pleasure, discomfort, pain?), all before a single image appears. With this enigmatic opening, Kantemir Balagov’s remarkable Beanpole (2019) immediately announces itself as a unique sensory experience.
The mysterious sounds come from Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), whose paradoxically diminutive nickname provides the film’s title. It’s a testament to Miroshnichenko’s performance that, despite her conspicuous physical presence (she towers over every other actor), she often seems peripheral when with other characters. A veteran herself, Iya works at a hospital in Leningrad for recovering soldiers and suffers from unexpected “freezing fits,” the result of a mysterious war injury. Only when she goes home to Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), an infant left in her care, does she seem happy.
Iya is soon reunited with a former comrade, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who arrives from the front with a shocking request. Unable to have a child herself, she pressures Iya into carrying a child for her. The shifting power dynamics between these two women fuel much of the ensuing drama, so I dare not reveal more of Masha’s scheme. Matters are further complicated, however, when a romance blossoms between Masha and the puppyish Sasha (Igor Shirokov), a local. This relationship is fundamentally pragmatic (Sasha visits her with food and clearly expects sex in return) and speaks to a broader societal dilemma in which the human body (specifically the female body) has become a kind of currency.
The film’s vivid color palette plays a key role in establishing, and commenting on, the central relationship between the two women. As her name implies, Iya is most often associated with green, evident through her matching coat and hat. Masha’s vibrant red hair stands out in practically all of her scenes. As their lives intertwine, so do the corresponding colors; Masha dons a holly green dress in preparation for a big date, and Iya later wears a bright red sweater. It’s as if the two are slowly seeping into one another, the boundary distinguishing the dominant Masha from the meek Iya becoming increasingly blurred. Indeed, the latter feels a sort of power in succumbing to the former’s demands: “I want to be the master of her,” she confides to a coworker, when asked why she would bear another woman’s child.
This motif of ambiguous boundaries propels the narrative, too. Beanpole takes place during a transitional time period, a strange zone wherein the Second World War is technically over but the routines of “normal” life have yet to resettle. With a few exceptions, most scenes take place in nondescript buildings, trolleys and cars, or the hospital; the rest of the world doesn’t seem to have caught up. “We are moving towards a peaceful life,” a doctor intones. “We will work hard.” One unsaid, but painfully obvious, truth about this hard work is that much of it is being done by women expected to help others while suffering in silence. Iya’s fits, which randomly occur with sometimes tragic consequences, embody this nebulous, post-war state: Russia, too, seems frozen.
Balagov reinforces this transitory motif through clever visuals, such as a half-painted wall in the women’s cramped apartment. Elsewhere, his and cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s images occasionally border on the surreal. Consider, for example, a cut that juxtaposes Iya’s profile with that of a dog’s regal posture, or the fetishistic grace with which they capture Masha’s spinning green dress as she twirls, her facial features wavering between uninhibited ecstasy and madness. The warm, yellowish glow (sensual, yet borderline sickly) that illuminates many of the interior scenes calls The Double Life of Véronique (1991) to mind.
While undoubtedly a visual feast, its bold primary colors dripping (sometimes literally) down the frame, the film’s rich soundscape makes for a truly immersive experience. Sound mixers Rostislav Alimov and Stepan Sevastianov incorporate and amplify human noises that most movies avoid entirely: strained breathing and swallowing, groans, barely suppressed screams. At times, it feels like there’s a microphone inside the characters’ bodies, adding a visceral intimacy to the proceedings: this is what you hear when resting your head against someone’s chest.
Beanpole navigates many genres, Balagov dipping his toe in wartime melodramas, psychosexual thrillers, and forbidden love stories, all with a subtle dash of horror. As a result, the narrative is perhaps a bit long in the tooth; a sequence in which Masha meets Sasha’s blithe, bourgeois parents packs quite an emotional punch but feels a bit out of place (it could almost operate as a short in and of itself). Nevertheless, the film’s multisensory throughline ultimately pulls these disparate elements together.
Iya and Masha’s relationship is just as impressive and complex as the technical prowess on display. Both characters make some morally dubious choices, but they earn our sympathy largely because we do not follow them as much as we inhabit them. The cumulative effect is akin to a sequence in which Iya helps a dying patient have one last cigarette by lighting it herself and blowing the smoke in his mouth. This small moment reveals much about her; simultaneously subservient and domineering, she insinuates herself into others, the film’s audience included.
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.