AFI Fest 2019: Beanpole, by Scott Nye
Young men, ever eager to make their mark on the world, have a habit of steering hard into a sort of aggressive, pummeling style when making their first few features. Some find a captivating rhythm within that; others flounder, searching for connective tissue to bind their many ideas together into a coherent and moving whole. With his second feature, Beanpole, 28-year-old writer/director Kantemir Balagov has shown himself a talent worth keeping an eye on, but not one who has yet come into his own.
Its best qualities come to the fore immediately – title card situating us in Russia immediately following World War II, we hear a young woman’s desperate breaths, something between a choke and a gasp. Its opening shot reveals a very tall woman in a nurse’s uniform named Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) – nicknamed Beanpole for obvious reasons – struggling to move, breathe, or even blink. We gather from the coworkers around her, who call her two names but do not seemed overly concerned, that this is not an irregular occurrence, and certainly not life-threatening. For her, anyway. When she leaves, she has a young son to tend to at home, whom she loves and dotes upon. One night, they playfully wrestle, and she ends up on top of him when one of her fits start up, leaving her unable to move as his tiny hand fails to push her away before it can no longer even try.
It’s a devastating image, and we don’t yet know how troubling. The boy did not belong to Iya, but to her friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who is just returning from the military duty that Iya’s condition forced her out of. Masha stayed behind as the army proves a pretty good job – of sorts – for a young woman with no prospects, and could set her up to provide very well for her son when she returns. She does not seem overly distressed by her son’s somewhat-unexplained death (“in his sleep,” Iya says); she would hardly be the only mother to lose a son at war, and her son was probably not the only one she lost. She barely had the chance to even know him.
The event nonetheless initiates a growing divide between the once-close friends, as Masha seeks to once again bear a child and sure, take a man along with that. Most of all, to move out of the tiny room she and Iya share and truly begin her life. Iya’s desires are less clear. She’s a good deal more afraid of sex than Masha, and though she seems to excel at her work, it doesn’t seem like a passion either. Her attachment to Masha could be romantic, or it could be a devotion to the only friend upon whom she feels she can truly count.
The plot from there further pursues these two plains – Masha’s desire for a child, and Iya’s growing awareness of what she might want and be able to claim in life – and the film explores them in increasingly determined ways, letting no scene go by that doesn’t in some way further its aims, using and discarding some fascinating elements in its pursuit. These machinations sometimes emerge as true surprises, but just as often feel contrived, suffocating in their narrow pursuit while depicting lives rife with uncertainty. This tendency mounts as the film nears its conclusion, piling on scenes designed to satisfy the audience but yielding little that seems truly borne out of its characters and their circumstances.
Balagov exploits the postwar setting for all its aesthetic glory – the sets and costumes are extraordinary, and Kseniya Sereda’s cinematography pushes the saturation just a bit to make the world feel like it’s a little bit on fire, or about to be. But Balagov’s screenplay, which he cowrote with Aleksandr Terekhov, isn’t terribly interested in other details of the period, in how it shaped the way people thought, spoke, and behaved, or how it shaped the culture in which they operated. The story could take place just about anywhere or anytime, which does less to make it feel “timeless” than it does to call into question the purpose of setting it in 1945 at all.
The increased access to cinematic education has lead many young directors to take huge leaps very quickly, spurred on by a young person’s ambition and the technical education to pull it off on at least a basic level. But this sort of sudden vault doesn’t give them time to develop either their craft or their worldview, and just as often their films feel at sea, anchored to some basic ideas about cinema and people but not as daring or insightful as those ideas need to be to take root. Balagov has many of the makings of a very fine director, drawing affecting, lively performances from his lead actresses, and a number of well-realized scenes that exhibit a distinct point of view. But those only serve to temporarily mask an underdeveloped scenario and a desire to please and impress that gradually becomes overwhelming. I believe he’ll get there, but he’s not there yet.