Kantemir Balagov returns to Festival de Cannes’ Un Certain Regard programme for a second time with Beanpole (2019), a haunting post-WW2 drama where two former soldiers who served on the front in a female combat unit are reunited. The young cineaste portrays, with deft skill, themes of submission and domination, repressed desires and manipulative tendencies underpinning acts of friendship.
It’s 1946 and Mother Russia is getting back on her feet, after years fighting the Nazis. At a hospital in Leningrad, blonde-haired Iya (Victoria Miroshnychenko), nicknamed Beanpole because she’s so skinny and tall, tends to veterans with a range of life-changing injuries. She also suffers from a peculiar syndrome, a strange affliction which manifests seemingly at random, leaving rigid, making a repetitive clucking sound with her tongue and vacant stare. She looks for all the world like a malfunctioning robot, wires fried and quickly losing battery power.
One day, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) knocks at Iya’s door, looking for her little boy, left in Iya’s care while his mother remained in the heat of battle. Devastated by the news of little Sasha’s death, Masha begins to hatch a plan to get another child, a cruel scheme which involves manipulating and dominating Iya into doing her bidding. What then unfolds is a dark and disturbing power play between pals who may be harbouring feelings beyond the realms of the platonic.
Ksenia Sereda’s bleached out, yellow-hued cinematography lends scenery, interiors and bodies a severely jaundiced look, enhancing the malignant atmosphere generated by the plot and character machinations, while the use of silence and lack of traditional score generates oodles of tension. Add to this two absolutely knockout performances by Miroshnychenko and Perelygina. For sure, Beanpole makes demands of your attention and it might even test your patience in the first hour or so, but the rewards are worth the investment.
Balagov’s intense but detached shooting style recalls the bleak output of Michael Haneke and the levels of emotional cruelty is pure Lars von Trier in Breaking the Waves (1996) and Dancer in the Dark (2000) mode. The Russian filmmaker does not set out to merely copy the masters. With Beanpole, he has established his credentials as a confident dramatist.