The cinematic verve of 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov feels like an accomplishment not so much because of his age, but in spite of it. His sophomore feature, Beanpole, may have many audacious touches, but the controlled classicism with which he constructs a meticulous physical and emotional landscape defies his age.
Beanpole centers the female home-front experience in post-World War II Leningrad. The film’s vibrant hues belie the dour misery that bonds two friends, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), even closer together in the wake of war’s destruction. The need to bring life, especially in the form of a child, into this bleak landscape animates the two women amid an otherwise debilitatingly austere backdrop. Balagov charts Iya and Masha’s psychological power struggle gently and without ever steering into melodramatic territory, all while maintaining virtuosic control over sound and image.
When sitting across from Balagov prior to his film’s New York Film Festival premiere last October, the incongruity of film and filmmaker seemed even more pronounced. His youthfully unkempt appearance contrasted with both the intelligence of his answers and the methodical nature of his decisions behind the camera. The interview began with Balagov elaborating on how he crafted Beanpole and ended up in a reflective discussion musing about how directors can develop a signature style without succumbing to artistic stagnation.
In your debut feature, Closeness, you introduced your presence to the audience by putting your name in title cards and contextualizing your reasons for making the film. Even though there’s nothing like that in Beanpole, are you still in the film?
Yeah, absolutely. I hope I’m in the film. I try to watch the world with my character’s point of view, their eyes. I’m [as] afraid as Iya and Masha to be alone. That’s kind of my fear and their fears. I try to share my experience with them. For me, they’re real [people], not just characters.
Who do you consider to be the protagonist of this film: Iya, Masha, or both?
I think that even Sasha [Masha’s love interest, played by Igor Shirokov] and the doctor are beanpoles. In Russian, beanpole is about height. But, for me, it’s about clumsiness. The way they are trying to live after the world is a clumsy way. They feel clumsy, and they talk a little bit clumsy. They’re all beanpoles in some way.
You’re working once again with non-professional actresses. Is there a particular effect you’re looking to achieve with their less studied and self-conscious style?
They’re actresses, and they studied while shooting. For me, the most important thing is personality. I don’t need the acting course. I need the personality first of all. Trauma and personality.
Since they hadn’t been in other films before, does that make them more impressionable as performers? Can you shape their performances in a certain way?
I think the lack of film experience didn’t play a big role. In the first moment, we created a human connection rather than a professional one.
Is there any conscious reason in particular why, at least so far, you’ve gravitated toward telling women’s stories?
I try to discover my female side and understand my childhood. I was living with my mother because my parents were divorced. I feel comfortable with them.
It’s impossible to discuss your films without colors, especially blue in Closeness and green—as well as yellow, to a lesser extent—in Beanpole. What’s the process of conceiving those intellectually and then working with your production team to visualize it?
The content of the film shapes the colors. Specifically talking about Beanpole, in reality, the colors were much gloomier. We wanted to pick colors to highlight avoiding their reality—to uplift it.
Is that for the sake of the characters in the film or the audience watching it?
That was made for the emotional impact. I knew what my characters would be. I knew how much suffering there would be, and I didn’t want them to look miserable in the frame. I want them to look decent, so that’s why we tried to create some beautiful frames. Like art frames.
It’s such a stark contrast to post-war films with greys or desaturated colors.
Yeah, from the beginning, it should be like mud. But there are just some things that helped point me to using colors.
Does it come from a feeling you have? Are you a student of color theory?
No, my hobby is photography, and I’m a huge fan of Magnum photos, the agency created by Henri Cartier-Bresson with Robert Capa. In the color photos, there’s some rhythm of the colors. It’s easy to see because a photo is like a freeze frame. I took it and used it in Closeness, and I liked it.
The line “heroes weren’t only on the front lines” feels like such a summation of Beanpole’s mission—revising history to accommodate the substantial contributions of women. Is it meant to echo forward into the present at all?
Frankly speaking, I didn’t intend to make a movie that resonated with today. I started to think about it in 2015, and it’s important to remember that the events of 2015 might not be expressed in this in 2019. My goal was not to make something that reflected today’s events.
The press notes point out there’s no imagery of Stalin or communism at all in Beanpole. What was the rationale behind that—to make the story more universal?
Cinema, for me, is a tool of immortality. I think those people don’t deserve immortality, in my view.
It makes the film feel not necessarily universal, but it’s not quite so bound to specifics of the time. It’s applicable beyond the immediate context.
Yeah, I think so. We didn’t want to hitch it to a certain period. We wanted to create a universal story.
What’s the effect of all your meticulous historical research on the set? It strikes me that it has as much to do with having an impact on the performers as it does the audience.
I think those meticulous things we included in the film affected the body language, for example. It helped the actors achieve a specific tone, voice, and gesture. The way people moved back then is very different from the body language we have today.
People were exhausted by the war. They moved slowly. When I was researching, I watched some footage from those times. In some way, we have some common things [with that time period]. But they talk differently. The intonation in the voice seems very fragile—one touch and it’s going to break.
You’ve frequently referred back to the advice of your mentor Alexander Sokurov. Now that you’ve made two films of your own, are there any areas where you’ve gone your own way or found your own wisdom?
As an auteur, I want to be independent. But as a human being, I feel a connection with him. I really appreciate it.
In recent interviews, you’ve said that you feel like you’re still searching for your style. What does the end result of that search look like for you? A single, identifiable aesthetic or a more intangible voice?
It’s hard to describe. It’s you who will decide.
Don’t put that pressure on me!
I was so curious, I asked Sokurov when I was studying what’s the difference between stagnation and an author’s signature. He said to me that you should find it on your own, I don’t have the answer for you.
I get the sense that artists tend to look for stories that inspire you, and you all don’t think of necessarily envision a linear career path in the same way that journalists do. Scorsese, for example, makes so many different kinds of films, but you can always tell that he made them.
That’s why I was curious about the difference between style and stagnation. I really admire many contemporary directors, but so many of their works are stagnant. I’m afraid of that. I’m afraid that my third film will be a sign of stagnation.
So variation is what you hope for?
Yeah, I would like to make an animated movie. I’m really curious about games. I would like to direct a game. I’d like to make a film from a game, like The Last of Us. I’m open to it.
Translation by Sasha Korbut