By Michael Sicinski
Kantemir Balagov’s debut feature Closeness (2017) garnered significant attention on the festival circuit, for reasons both positive and negative. Primarily a look at an insular Jewish community in a small town in the north Caucasus, the film institutes a tragedy that tests the bonds of immediate versus extended family. Centring at first on a young woman, Ilana (Darya Zhovner), who defies her parents and years of tradition by having fallen in love with a boy who isn’t Jewish (Nazir Zhukov), Closeness deceptively appears to be yet another iteration of Romeo and Juliet. In fact, Ilana’s story is sidelined when her brother David (Veniamin Katz) and his fiancée are kidnapped and held for an exorbitant ransom. Ilana and David’s parents go to neighbours, friends, and the Jewish elders for monetary help, but there is a limit to what they can provide.
The heart of Closeness is Ilana’s struggle to develop her own modern identity in the face of Old World sexism and religious insularity. The crisis with David only prompts her mother to clamp down even more on her free-spirited daughter. In this regard, Closeness bears a resemblance to somewhat stronger films such as Dover Kosashvili’s Late Marriage (2002) or even James Gray’s We Own the Night (2007). Set in the mid-’90s, Closeness has the added wrinkle of pointing up new forms of post-Soviet lawlessness and multiethnic hatred for which an older generation is ill-equipped, to say the least. But it is in driving this point home that Balagov topples into New Extremity showboating, effectively tanking his film.
Mid-film, there is a scene that shows Ilana hanging out with her boyfriend and his friends. They are thugs, essentially—precisely the kind of guys who probably kidnapped her brother. A few of them make offhanded anti-Semitic remarks, then half-heartedly apologize. Balagov is clearly demonstrating that the space outside of the small Jewish cocoon, the broader world Ilana covets, is a deeply problematic place. But then, Balagov has the boys watch a tape of Chechens slitting the throat of a Russian soldier. This interlude is not staged; Balagov intercuts actual online snuff footage into Closeness, for no discernible narrative reason. The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy (who liked Closeness overall) has argued, quite rightly, that such a film owes its audience a trigger warning, at the very least. But I would go further, to say that Balagov’s astonishing ethical lapse virtually invalidates Closeness’ consideration as a work of art. This is a shame, because Zhovner’s performance ought to have been more widely seen.
For his follow-up, Balagov has moved further back in time, focusing on an earlier example of a woman out of step with her immediate surroundings. But where Closeness’ Ilana was a petulant rebel, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), the protagonist of Beanpole, is a war-damaged misfit struggling, and failing, to eke out an interstitial existence and draw a minimum of attention. In this pursuit, Iya has a few strikes against her. For one thing, she is almost a foot taller than the other women around her, and Balagov continually frames her towering above those she lives and works with. Strangers and acquaintances alike are as likely to call her “Beanpole” as by her actual name, which tells us quite a bit about her dysfunctional milieu. Thin, blonde, and willowy, Iya would be considered statuesque in other circumstances. But this is Soviet Russia in the immediate aftermath of World War II, and conformity is everything. Being overly competent at one’s job, or too pretty, or too solicitous, is a good way to court suspicion. Best to be unexceptional in every way.
Iya was a gunner on the front lines of the war, but was discharged after suffering a permanent concussive injury. We see evidence of this brain damage early on when, working as a nurse in a military hospital, she lapses into a fugue state and freezes in place, going glassy-eyed and appearing to lose time. This dropping out of consciousness will happen several more times in the film, including at one particularly tragic moment that results in the death of Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), the puny young boy she is raising in his mother’s absence. But there seems to be more wrong with Iya than what can be attributed to her injury.
“Beanpole” seems strangely arrested in adolescence, as though she suddenly woke up in a grown woman’s body and has no clue how to cope with its material demands, or the inchoate desires she sometimes evinces. This disquieting winsomeness is complicated by the return of Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), Iya’s friend from the war zone. Masha is Pashka’s mother, and she sent Iya and the boy back to the home front to wait out the end of the hostilities. But upon discovering Pashka’s death, Masha decides that Iya “owes” her a new child, and will bear it for her, one way or another.
Balagov has attracted a great deal of praise for managing a certain kind of high-wire act with Beanpole. It is not exactly an allegorical film, but neither is it entirely realistic. Shot through with a grungy period style virtually overlaid with a painterly artifice of saturated colour, the film communicates the deprivation of severe rationing and bombed-out, rat-like living conditions while also providing unexpected points of illumination. The hospital, for example, is both filthy and well-lit, displaying its ward full of tattered soldiers with the clarity of a grimy Raphael painting. And the overall hue of Beanpole is a sickly yellow poised between incandescent lamps and piss-water, all the better for Iya’s emerald-green smock or Masha’s red dress to stand out and demand our focus.
If there is an overriding theme in Beanpole, it is probably something along the lines of Sartre’s No Exit but extrapolated to a general social principle. Balagov organizes the interpersonal throughlines of the film around the complex relationship between Iya and Masha, which appears to be one of unrequited, forbidden love (from Iya’s direction) and the self-preservationist calculation of a damaged soul (from Masha’s). Others are introduced as radii to this central dyad: Dr. Nikolai (Andrey Bykov), Iya’s patient, melancholic boss, and Sasha (Igor Shirokov), a naïve young orderly, in particular. Toward the end, Balagov seems to suggest that all of these sad-sack war survivors are hapless puppets of Masha the mastermind, but a late development reveals that she is perhaps the most victimized of all.
There is a technical sophistication to Beanpole that’s hard not to admire. Balagov’s plotting is particularly shrewd. The film moves its characters along a certain trajectory for a certain amount of time and then, like a brakeman throwing a switch, things are shunted off to a separate but plausibly parallel track. This results in a near-constant spectatorial unease, as our understanding of character backstory and subsequent sympathies are repeatedly realigned.
At the same time, both of Balagov’s features evince a certain ruthlessness that is not exactly commensurate with the broader import of their apparent projects. Whereas Closeness places its conceptual stakes on a Jewish minority beset on various sides by distrust and aggression, it’s never entirely clear that the film really has a particular viewpoint on prejudice. It’s just taken as a premise from which to proceed. Likewise, Beanpole proposes the postwar period as a cesspool of traumatic stupor and horizontal violence, where the logical outcome of rape and blackmail is collective survival through a psychotic folie à deux.
The outward trappings of Beanpole suggest that these emotional crises somehow pertain to postwar nation-building, motherhood, or the marginalization of women under a supposedly egalitarian communism. But Balagov leaves all of these threads dangling, instead resolving the film purely within the private realm. A generous reading of Beanpole is that is displays the complexities of the society these women inhabit and prefers not to disentangle this web for the viewer. But it’s hard not to think that the film just isn’t all that invested, and is content to use Russian history as a painted backdrop.