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Russia’s rising stars revisit its tragic past in new drama

Viktoria Miroshnichenko in Beanpole, directed by Kantemir Balagov. Picture: Getty images - Credit: Archant

JAMES OLIVER talks to the young director behind a stunning new film which presents Russian history in a new and unstinting light.

Considering the cost the Soviet Union paid during the Second World War it’s no wonder that the conflict has become such a central part of Russian culture, movies most especially. Stories of that heroic struggle have been a cinematic staple ever since the hammer and sickle fluttered over the Reichstag.

Rather less attention, though, has been paid to what happened next. “I’ve read in soldiers’ diaries that living after the war was harder than [during] the war because in the war, you have one target – survive. After the war you have so much to do.” That’s Kantemir Balagov, director (and co-writer) of Beanpole, a new film which takes place in what was then Leningrad during the first winter after the war.

It is a bold, striking picture, one that won’t have too much trouble finding a seat amongst the best of the year; it certainly caused quite a splash in the Un Certain Regard section at this year’s Cannes film festival, winning Balagov both the best director trophy and a reputation as one to watch.

But while there are a lot of people interested in seeing what he does next, it’s worth concentrating on the here and now: Beanpole reveals Balagov’s prodigious talent more clearly than any crystal ball.

The title refers to its main character, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a rangy young woman prone to blackouts, a consequence of her time spent in battle; don’t forget Soviet women fought for the motherland alongside the men. That fight might be over but, as Iya finds, the struggles of peacetime can be no less harrowing.

For this, his second feature, Balagov was galvanised by a book, The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich. “I knew nothing about the war,” he says. “I mean, I knew something but it was the usual stuff, so after I read the book, I was moved and I wanted to make a film about a female.”

Inspired particularly by the stories of those who survived, and their efforts to repair the damage, he decided to focus on the oft-ignored aftermath of the war.

The setting of Leningrad had, itself, been scarred by a terrible 900-day siege which lingers over the film: A small child, for instance, doesn’t know what a dog is – and why would he? All the dogs were eaten during the siege.

Now, previous Russian and Soviet movies have hardly evaded the horrors of the war (how could they?) but the purpose was never in question.

Beanpole, though, is very different. Iya works in a hospital filled with broken men; the state calls them heroes, but these amputees and paraplegics face a bleak future, especially if their families refuse to care for them. Nor is the damage exclusively physical. Both Iya and her friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) are thoroughly shellshocked.

These are the stories that all those epic tales of the Great Patriotic War necessarily avoid, the awkward reality behind the glorious mythology. “In modern days, in Russia, there’s so many patriotic war films,” says Balagov, rolling his eyes at their simplistic messages: “‘We’re so strong!’ ‘We can do it again!’ blah blah blah.” For himself, he is not a fan of all this strongman showing off. “The ninth of May – Victory Day – is celebrated with too much enthusiasm, even aggressively.”

Iya is certainly far from the traditional Second World War movie soldier, and not simply because of her sex; she is – as the title implies – tall and gawky, even if the translation doesn’t quite capture the connotations of the film’s original Russian title, Dylda. “It’s not only the height. In Russian, it’s a person who’s clumsy.”

But Balagov rejects the idea that his film is a conscious corrective to the national myth, stressing that his focus was on the characters, their circumstances and the city where they live. The setting, for instance, was very carefully chosen – “[St Petersburg] has this special energy. The weight of history” – and much care was taken to evoke it, with long hours spent on research.

“It was so exhausting. I was afraid to make a mistake in small details. We had a [historical] consultant and we tried to make it real.”

Vintage wallpaper was used in
interior scenes and the streetcars were borrowed from a museum. But the commitment to accuracy was allied to something else besides. “I respect the authentic,” says Balagov, “but on the other hand, I wanted to make something – not surreal, but just a little bit above the reality.

In this, as so much, the film succeeds triumphantly: Rather than the drab visuals that so many directors use to tell tough stories, Balagov juxtaposes the horrors with a rich, vivid colour scheme, full of bright greens and golds. True, he’d originally planned to shoot in black and white, but that was before he knuckled down to do his research.

“[We found] people tried to escape the grey reality they were living in through colour.” Nor was it just verisimilitude that shaped his decision: The colour allows him to better depict his character’s interior states. “The main character is a person who has PTSD, and maybe that’s the way she sees the world.”

There is, he says, a third reason behind his choice of colour palette. Beanpole isn’t just a film about those who survive, but also about their efforts to begin again. “My people, after the war, are trying to recreate life, starting to recreate spaces and colour.” This theme runs throughout the film, as the characters struggle – sometimes desperately – to adjust to this new world.

To adapt the title of Roberto Rossellini’s classic neo-realism film about life in immediate post-war Germany, this is ‘St Petersburg, Year Zero’; one of the stories in Alexievich’s book which the director was most drawn to concerned a woman who was desperate to start a new life in the most literal way she could. “She wanted to have a child and get rid of the trauma that surrounded her after the war. She was surrounded by death and she wanted to give birth to get rid of the death.” And just like their real-life models, the characters in Beanpole have seen an awful lot of death.

All this sounds thoroughly grown up, so it’s a bit of a shock to meet the fresh-faced Balagov and find he isn’t some grizzled veteran with long, bitter years of experience of love and loss under his belt. He was born in 1991, which means he’s too young to remember the Soviet Union, let alone life after the Second World War.

A native of Nalchik in the Caucuses, he came to filmmaking after winning a place at a film workshop in his home city’s Kabardino-Balkar State University under the auspices of Alexander Sokurov, Russia’s greatest living filmmaker.

Balagov didn’t know Sokurov’s work before he began his instruction but it’s clear that he was an attentive pupil: the moral seriousness of the film owes something to the lessons of the man that Balagov still calls “my master”. “He always taught us you should try to hide the tragedy of the character inside the character,” he says. “You shouldn’t make a product out of their tragedy.”

Sokurov also seems to have given his apprentice the courage to make a film about the female experience. “[He] told us the director – the author – shouldn’t have gender. You should be true, especially when you’re working on the characters, so I tried to focus on that.” Certainly, unlike most other male directors, he never tries to prettify his female characters nor tidy up their messiness, showing their lives with uncomfortable honesty. Although it’s ultimately up to women to judge how successful he is in his depiction, he deserves at least some credit for trying.

Some of that credit must be shared with his cast. Both Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina deliver fearless performances as the two damaged young women at the heart of the tale, all the more remarkable for being the first time that either has appeared on screen.

Many rehearsals were undertaken before the cameras finally rolled, but no amount of rehearsal can hone talent that isn’t there.

“The most surprising thing for me,” says Balagov of the pair, “was they both came on the first day of casting. So from the first day of casting, I knew I had my main characters.”

Still, as impressive as the actresses are, it is their director who emerges as the real star. Even if the difficulties that the characters endure mean that Beanpole is sometimes – well, quite frequently, actually – painful to watch, the sheer skill of its construction and the confidence with which Balagov tells his story means that the experience is never a depressing one.

These are uncertain times for what used to be called ‘art’ cinema: The arrival of someone who is committed to telling human stories so truthfully and with such style is cheering indeed.

Beanpole is now available on the streaming platform MUBI

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