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BEANPOLE (2019) review

March 5, 2020

 

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written by: Kantemir Balagov and Aleksandr Terekhov
produced by: Natalia Gorina, Sergey Melkumov, Ellen Rodnianski, Alexander Rodnyansky
directed
by: Kantemir Balagov
rated: NR (Content equivalent of R)
runtime: 130 min.
U.S. release date: January 29, 2020

 

“Other girls chased after generals but not me. Generals can get any girl, so it doesn’t last. l wanted the Head Logistics Officer. Then you’d never go hungry. Or be killed.”

 

“Beanpole” opens with two minutes where the only sound the audience hears is an uncomfortable, guttural sound being made by a woman. It sounds as though she’s struggling to breathe, which we later discover is exactly what’s happening, as our title character – real name Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) – suffers the first of several catatonic seizures. The next one we see grip her in the film is ten times as agonizing.

Set in Leningrad during the waning days of WWII, the film follows Iya as she works as a nurse in a hospital overrun with injured soldiers returning from the front. Any time she spends away from work is spent in the company of Pashka, the three-year old son of her best friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), currently fighting on the front. When these two women reunite, the circumstances are as unhappy as they get, and things only spiral down into further misery from there.

 

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I had not heard of 31 year-old director Kantemir Balagov prior to seeing this film, but it is apparently only his second film, and as his age would indicate, perhaps the first major international director to come from a post-Soviet Russia. While his subject matter is obviously intended to put the audience through the emotional wringer, his visual style is astonishingly gorgeous. Balagov, his cinematographer Kseniya Sereda, production designer Sergey Ivanov, and costume designer Olga Smirnova create vibrant colors and bathe them in shadows that would make the Dutch Masters proud.

The film is reminiscent at times of Cristian Mungiu’s equally emotionally oppressive film “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.” Where Mungiu embraced the sterility of the look and feel of Communist Romania, Balagov takes a fairly ugly place in time—post WWII Leningrad—and brings it to vibrant life through deep colors that look almost upholstered onto the screen.

Another point of pride for Balagov is that he has managed to put two of the most uncomfortable sex scenes ever filmed into one movie. The first one is over in a flash, with the uncomfortableness reaching its nadir after the act. The other is agonizingly long and drawn out in a single, extended medium close-up shot. It’s one of the most haunting images of the film and one of the most twisted, psycho-sexually charged scenes in recent film history – and yes, I’ve seen “Dogtooth.”

 

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Another thing that sets “Beanpole” apart from some of the other films mentioned here is how the misery is punctuated by moments of extraordinary beauty and joy, like when Masha gets to put on an expensive green dress and twirl around in ecstasy like she were a child again, just for a single moment. Balagov and co-writer Aleksandr Terekhov don’t like to linger in those moments, however, with the film’s thesis statement being, essentially, nothing good can last.

Ultimately “Beanpole” overstays its welcome just a bit, becoming borderline belabored in the final act. Nevertheless, this is a film that will suss out the weak from the strong due to its many, many uncomfortable moments, the first coming just fifteen minutes or so in. It’s the beauty of Balagov’s images and the few sparks of joy in these miserable lives that linger with you long after the film is over, however. Balagov is clearly a major talent to watch, and if this film is any indication, perhaps the most visually and technically proficient director his country has produced since Andrei Tarkovsky.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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