The first word that comes to mind when Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole opens is ‘sick’. The city is sick with war, saturated greens and yellows appear through the stark white and gray of post-war Stalingrad. This is not the green of life, but a hue of suffering and decay. The white light that filters through the windows of the hospital is cold, and cinematographer Kseniya Sereda manages to make the warm reds, greens, and yellows of the film feel icy and off-putting. The set is just as desperate as the characters, peeling and cracking away to reveal new layers of damage. A game of charades breaks out in the hospital when Viktoria Miroshnichenko’s Iya brings her young ‘son’ Pashka, played by Timofey Glazkov, to the hospital with her one day. The patients begin to ask the young boy about animals, starting off with exotic, but growing more sinister as the child looks on in confusion.
“Where would he have seen a dog? They’ve all been eaten.”
In this city, everyone is starving. In this city, children know nothing but people and pain. The boy himself soon suffocates in an accident, a turning point into full depravity. He is not Iya’s biological son, but that of her friend (and implied lover) Masha, Vasilisa Perelygina in her first film role. Masha is initially in denial, but flies into a frenzy of determination to have another child.
Beanpole is a film of debts paid without much to give. Both Iya and Masha had served in the war, and Masha’s desire for a child, as she mourns her son, is much more complicated because of it. She wants to replace the life she lost, but with her reproductive organs having been removed when she went to war, Iya is the only one that can give her that child. Pashka had lived with Iya for so long that the world assumed he was hers. She is allowed to grieve, both for her shared son, and her damaged relationships, while Masha must pretend to be fine. As far as anyone knows, it is not her child that has died as far as anyone knows, so that pain is pushed farther down inside, and comes out through desperation and a hint of subconscious revenge.
The film’s title makes it appear to be the story of the titular beanpole, Iya. However, the film is a two woman show for Miroshnichenko and Perelygina. Iya has earned the nickname ‘beanpole’ due to her height, and her habit of falling into perfect stillness during fits of PTSD. The two women have an underlying intimacy underneath all the pain, yet their relationship is left just below the surface in order to appease Russian censorship boards. The two seem to have a prior romance in addition to their bond of war, but that comes second in the desperate fight for a child. There’s little end to what Masha would do for a child of her own. Pashka had been one of few lights left for her in this starving, crumbling city, and without him, even her relationship with Iya has soured.
DP Kseniya Sereda paints the film with a traffic-light glaze, that’s very different in purpose than other visually similar films. While Kryzstof Kieslowski’s 1991 film The Double Life of Veronique has the same notable color palette, with its colors being a thread to connect the stories of two women, and are meant to apply a dreamlike quality; Beanpole’s cinematography feels more raw, using color to show how limited the resources are. Where the wallpaper in the film’s spectacular production design peels away, there is rust and ruin, decay in the colors of bright nature. It all feels hot despite the cold of winter, almost as if the world is burning. Where Double Life is the soft glow of heat, Beanpole is a forest fire, begging us not to look away from the horrors created. The film’s narrative has been described as ‘a hot bath of razor blades’ , and it’s shot much the same way; warm and comforting until one looks back at the world and remembers normalcy.
Beanpole opens in select cinemas on January 29th, 2019. The film is shortlisted for Best International Film at the 92nd Academy Awards