Beanpole movie review: Russia's entry to the Oscars is provocative and chilling with World War 2 as backdrop
Balagov creates a meticulously controlled but spontaneous landscape in Beanpole, where we often hear more than we see.
(This review was first published after Beanpole was screened at the Jio MAMI 21st Mumbai Film Festival on 18 October, 2019.)
As a connoisseur of World War II films, one has to wonder if after 75 years post the quashing of the Nazi empire, there is a chance to entice and enlighten the viewer with another film about the horror of the era.
Kantemir Balagov’s incredible Russian drama Beanpole proves that there is. Filmed with all the opulence one expects in a wintry nightmare, Balagov’s film – Russia’s entry to the Oscars this year (2019) — is provocative, chilling, and a peek into the deconstruction of civilisation when facing the wrong end of the oppressive stick.
The film commands a simple story – two friends Iya and Beanpole (Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina) reunite after the events of WWII under the hope of securing a child, but a devastating tragedy strikes, leaving them on the tenterhooks, and also with the urgency of landing a decent life in a war torn country. The director Balagov is just 26 years old, but he achieves something that a veteran would – he brings an audacious new vision to the holocaust sub-genre, making Beanpole a boldly immersive cinematic experience. Shot with intimate camerawork in extended takes, almost entirely set around the faces of the two beguiling main characters, the film throws us into the morbid turmoil of life in quietly exploding trauma.
A notable feat of Beanpole lies in how information is conveyed to the viewer. The drama unfolds mostly at night, and in a militarised and poverty-struck interiors of Leningrad, yet we see no clichéd images of soldiers or barracks, instead we see the film from the point of view of only the two central ladies. By keeping his focus honed in on just two women, Balagov transcends traditional melodramatic emphasis on tragedy, a straining contrast with whatever the protagonists are going through. There is a brutal honesty to the imagery, conjuring a ton of story with just silence and emphasis on its protagonists’ faces.
The horror of war is over, but its ghost loiters in every scene of the film, the lingering nature of which adds up to a sensorial and believable version of what is ultimately fictional storytelling. Balagov’s flair for sound design plays a crucial role, constantly evoking the anxiety and depression wafting in the air of bleak Russia, persistently invoking a sense of oppressive claustrophobia. The eyes of the women in the film offer only a flicker of hope for some form of recovery, reaching desperately out for a glimpse of escape from an emotional abyss.
With his cinematographer Kseniya Sereda and sound designer, Balagov creates a meticulously controlled but spontaneous landscape in Beanpole, where we often hear more than we see.
This may strike some viewers as unsettling but it forces us to remain close to its two representative viewpoints, whose gender and emotional dynamics are determined by complex moments. Moments that warrant an embrace as well as a kind of self-protective detachment. Balagov is also a skilled dramatist who absorbs us into the protagonists’ plight by achieving emotional impact without sentimentality. Both Miroshnichenko and Perelygina make an impact the way the leads from Blue is the Warmest Color did: they are both challenging but captivating characters, wisely presented not as mere victims of Nazi evil but also heroes going against the grain.
Right up to its enigmatic final frames, Beanpole sucks us into a tour of the depths of misery, but it does so with a masterful layer of restraint as a kind of narrative blanket, letting tragedy seep through in sedate, if irrefutably potent doses. The result makes it possible to watch the unwatchable – not an easy experience by any stretch, nor should it be.
Beanpole is now streaming on Mubi India.
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