Several minutes into Kantemir Balagov's first feature, Closeness (2017), the young director makes himself known. "My name is Kantemir Balagov," reads an onscreen text. "I am a Kabardian." Set in Balagov's hometown of Nalchik, the capital of the North Caucasus republic of Kabardino-Balkaria where the film's real-life events took place, Closeness follows the family of a young Jewish man who gets kidnapped and held for ransom against the run-up to the Second Chechen War. The film has little in common plot-wise with Balagov's second feature, Beanpole. Still, I was reminded of Balagov's rather bold decision to start his debut feature with that personal declaration—a new, young talent (he was then, and is still, in his mid-20s) introducing himself to the world.
Balagov's sophomore effort secures his place as an endeavoring auteur. Inspired by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich's 1985 oral history of Russian women who fought during World War II, The Unwomanly Face of War (which Balagov read while studying under Russian filmmaker Alexander Sokurov), Beanpole, cowritten by Balagov and Aleksandr Terekhov, continues the former's speculative and near-sociological examination of contiguous suffering. Closeness focuses on the sister of the kidnapping victim, while Beanpole centers around two young women soldiers in the aftermath of World War II. These aren't mere character studies, however; what's on the surface—those cinematic qualities of image and sound—are just as integral as the protagonists' inner lives.
Set in Leningrad in the fall of 1945, following the end of the war, the film considers the fraught relationship between the titular Beanpole, Iya (newcomer Viktoria Miroshnichenko, a singular presence), and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina, a similarly beguiling newcomer), both of whom were among the 800,000 women who served in the Soviet Armed Forces during World War II. Beanpole opens with a medium close-up of Iya, frozen, while women around her go about their daily business. Someone attempts to rouse her; the camera pulls back to reveal her towering height in comparison to the other women—hence the nickname "Beanpole," which, in Russian, also means clumsy, a descriptor Balagov has said represents a postwar state of physical and mental unease. At the beginning, Iya is shown to be a nurse in a veteran's hospital, taking care of Pashka, a young boy who seems to be her son. But after she accidentally smothers him during a freezing fit, Masha comes back from the front, and we learn that Pashka was actually hers.
It speaks to the atrocities of war and its aftermath—and Balagov's distinctive handling of it—that the boy's death is not the catalyst for a pronounced, guilt-ridden breakdown between the two women, but rather the impetus of an odd codependent relationship, born of immense suffering, that the filmmakers don't exploit for cinematic tension. This sets the tone for the rest of the film, which, in addition to handling the protagonists' trauma, reveals the suffering of those around them. All this manifests in Masha's frenzied desire to have another child, which she convinces Iya to bear for her because she's now unable to conceive due to injuries sustained during the war. Masha's desire for new life and Iya's awkward desire to "master" Masha, as she admits later in the film (an inclination that could be viewed as a warped romantic overture), speak to how each is processing her respective trauma.
The story is compounded by Balagov's imposing visual aesthetic, which was evident in Closeness but here is on a whole new level. The striking mise-en-scène features intimate handheld camerawork, sullen long takes, bold lighting, and bright, painterly colors, specifically red (which signifies blood and death) and green (which signifies life). But above these aspects, I most admire how Balagov captures the characters' physicality, from Iya's freezing fits throughout the film to Masha's manic twirling during a particularly intense scene; the latter moment recalls one from Closeness, in which its female protagonist, feeling frustrated, dances wildly in a nightclub. More minute actions, like Iya's hands on a dying soldier's neck or Masha's elusive smiles, often framed in visceral close-up, draw one into the intimacies of their being; that both women are played by first-time actresses is extraordinary.
It's these vagaries that differentiate Balagov from filmmakers who use such idiosyncrasies in an almost gimmicky fashion. Contrary to the marketing for the film—such as a teaser trailer that combines certain scenes and sounds in a misleading way—Balagov is not mining the scenario for its inherent weirdness. It's there, to be sure, but it's not meant to shock or awe. Nor is the film overtly political—there are oblique references to communism, but there's no mention of Stalin. If anything, it's rather plaintive and unequivocal, the anomalies of life after trauma. "My name is Kantemir Balagov," I can almost see on the screen, this time at the end of the film. "And it's as straightforward as this." v