28-year-old Kantemir Balagov’s second film “Beanpole” has sickness in its marrow. Russia’s shortlisted entry for the 2019 Best International Feature Film Academy Award centers on a sometimes-toxic symbiosis shared by two women in post-WWII Leningrad, damaged by their experiences on the battle lines and eking out what remains of an existence working in a veterans hospital — a rust-colored hovel in the ruins of the city.
This slow-motion twist of the gut features impressive first-time performances from two actors Balagov plucked from obscurity in a country-wide casting call. Viktoria Miroshnichenko plays the long-limbed, ghostlike, sickly Iya, aka Beanpole, who’s rattled by a PTSD condition that causes sudden spells of shortness of breath. Vasilisa Perelygina plays Masha, prone to her own flights of mania, and the two women are locked in a folie a deux that careens from tenderness to freaky, vampiric obsession.
In taking a look at the breakdown of women’s bodies and minds amid the passage of war, Balagov told IndieWire that “Beanpole” is about “what happens to women when they went to war and were surrounded by death and return to a ‘peaceful life,’ and how they manage that, how they struggle. It’s about a biological shift in their body, and a psychological shift in the mindset.”
Casting director Vladimir Golov, with whom Balagov collaborated on his 2017 debut “Closeness,” set out on a talent search across Eastern Europe to find the two leads. Director Balagov conjured their eerie chemistry by jamming them together as roommates in close quarters during the four-month production.
“We moved them to St. Petersburg, and they lived in the same apartment, to make them feel close to each other,” Balagov said. “If for some reason, they would start to annoy each other, it would be an additional cherry on top for their relationship on set … They were afraid because it’s their first film, and they were afraid that they weren’t able to manage, and this is a major source of bad vibes.”
“Beanpole” has a tactile immediacy that feels almost invasive. It’s uncomfortable to watch, and that’s exactly the point. Balagov, with his cinematographer Kseniya Sereda, holds his camera close to the actors’ faces. You can feel their every breath and swallow and gasp.
“I want the audience to feel close to the characters, and that’s why I like to hear the characters swallow, how they make sounds from their bodies, because these kind of sounds give a perception of you being right in front of them.” As for Beanpole’s PTSD, which finds her gasping for breath at critical moments throughout the film, Balagov said, “I want you to feel that she’s trying to start from scratch. Like vinyl. Someone recently told me, ‘She’s like a bird.’ These sounds reminded them of bird sounds. It’s like she messes up, and has to restart.”
Though the film is set in a very realistic version of 1945 Leningrad — one steeped in rust and green, suggesting a spiritual rot infecting the city itself — no Communist symbols are seen in the production design, a conscious choice on Balagov’s part. “I wanted the story to feel timeless, because cinema for me is a tool of immortality, and [someone like Joseph Stalin] doesn’t deserve this immortality.”
Currently playing the Palm Springs International Film Festival, “Beanpole” opens January 29 in New York, and February 14 in Los Angeles.