Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Seasoned Ticket 83
By Robert Horton
This week, writing from the pandemic, we’ve got another film being offered as a revenue-sharing venture: The award-winning Russian film Beanpole, distributed by Kino Lorber, is available for online viewing, and some of the proceeds will benefit the Northwest Film Forum if you go here.
Scarecrow itself is involved in one of these sharing events: Between April 17-20, the record-store documentary Other Music will be rentable online. See details here.
I haven’t seen that one. But here’s my review of Beanpole, a heady experience.
Tasked with making a film about two Soviet women dealing with various kinds of trauma in the aftermath of World War II, a film director might opt for a variety of different approaches. Among the more conventional would be, say, a quasi-documentary with lots of handheld camera, or perhaps a grim piece of social realism with its color leached away, the better to convince us of its seriousness.
Beanpole director Kantemir Balagov does not travel these conventional routes. This movie brings Solzhenitsyn-like seriousness (and the attendant urge to inventory certain government-mandated atrocities), filters it with hints of magical realism, and soaks it in the intense colors and sometimes overbearing style of a horror film. There is no light touch here, but by the time you reach the film’s final 20 minutes, it has earned its fever-dream intensity.
The war has recently ended, and Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is tending to a little boy, whom we might assume is her son. Much to unravel here: Iya, a six-foot-tall near-albino, was some time ago returned from the front lines because of a concussion that triggers recurrent spells of catalepsy; one such brainstorm causes a catastrophe in the early minutes here. And it turns out the boy is not hers, but the son of her soldier-friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who continued war service. Masha comes home and gets a custodial job at the Leningrad hospital where Iya is a nurse.
Much of the film revolves around Masha’s attempts to have another child, which mark her as either deranged or desperately, irrationally grief-stricken. Balagov sets this story in a densely fraught canvas of heightened reds and greens; the colors are lush, and they sometimes rhyme within a shot—wallpaper, costume, and teakettle might all be the same Christmas-tree green, as though wartime rationing has resulted in a narrowing of the color scale. This movie is really directed to within an inch of its life, including Balagov’s use of long takes at specific key moments: the reunion of Iya and Masha, for instance, which ranges across a darkened room and across a terrible landscape of feeling.
Most of the story takes place in patched-together apartments or grungy hospital rooms, but the key climactic sequence is in a splendid home belonging to an upper-class (or at least socially powerful) family, the kind of thing that the revolution was supposed to have ended. Here Masha confronts the imperious mother (Kseniya Kutepova) of her devoted boyfriend. Nothing is spared in this sequence, which is one of those face-offs you find in Bergman or Kubrick, an icily controlled scene of nerve-flaying revelations.
Balagov goes “too far” at various moments in the film, including moments that would really work only as ideas (I’m thinking of a scene where Masha begins spinning around in a new green dress, her movement quickly becoming unhinged). But, along with the movie’s fascinating visual scheme, in which Iya and Masha’s trauma seems to have affected our own way of seeing the world, Balagov has a case-closing weapon: his actors. The beanpole Miroshnichenko is a unique presence, so towering next to her co-stars that she seems to float through the story, which is not a bad way to depict her profound distraction. And Perelygina is an astonishing presence, supremely and scarily “on” in the manner of an Amanda Plummer or a Mercedes McCambridge, but with softness and humor emanating through her piercing eyes. It’s the first film for both actresses, and that alone surely marks Balagov as some kind of gifted demon-director.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.