When squeamish media liberals talk about “the Russia dossier,” they don’t describe its content — pretending some kind of discretion. But squeamish liberalism is also a contradiction in terms. Director Kantemir Balagov confronts this hypocrisy in the new film Beanpole, Russia’s entry for this year’s Best International Film Oscar, now playing at Film Forum.
Balagov’s story takes place in 1945 in Leningrad, after Nazi Germany’s four-year siege of the city, but his focus on two women who fought together in World War II — and their post-war personal and social readjustment — has a modern, nightmarish feel. It is clearly a response to contemporary spiritual crisis and sexual upheaval. Balagov’s anguished facial close-ups and stark nudity show Russian womanhood — sexual attraction, reproduction, marriage, and survival issues — with a combination of horror-movie intensity and art-movie flourish.
In the first scene, tall, thin Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), whose short blond hair and pale eyelashes look almost albino, stands in the middle of a veteran’s hospital ward going through a catatonic fit. She jerks her head, tenses her jaw, and utters throaty choking noises. Her squeamish condition carries a sense of outrage. Iya is unable to repair her life; she’s one of Russia’s walking wounded and soon commits a monstrous act that we learn is not her first or last.
Iya copes with the war’s emotional devastation alongside short, auburn Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), a sexual aggressor who taunts Iya as well as her male comrades. Masha is prone to nosebleeds when stressed — even during sex — a symptom of her own psychological and physical trauma. War-scarred, barren Masha fixates on bonding with Iya through Iya’s ability to conceive; competition between this odd couple culminates in a ménage à trois with the hospital’s director Nikolay (Andrey Bykov).
The scene of their triangulated pathologies (desperation, shame, lovelessness) is startling — so squeamish and outrageous that it strikes the modern political imagination as something momentous: an art-house proxy for that unmentionable dossier moment. It’s the unlikely and the obscene made visible.
Balagov’s three-way suggests what Rolling Stone, part of the liberal #Resistance media, termed kompromat (compromising material). It also portrays activity that Slate, when speculating about the content of the Russian dossier as an effective political weapon, hoped would be “extraordinarily damaging.”
Thank God that these squeamish media projections backfired, exposing the dirty-minded hypocrisy of those who would concoct or welcome the salacious content. Slate’s complaint (“defiling the bed where the Obamas had slept”) reveals the real offense — the sort that might come only from an Obamaniac’s fevered imagination. Thus, Balagov’s orgy scene becomes a symbol for all the “perversions” that the corrupt Left promotes, defends, or weaponizes at will.
A Russian art-movie undergoes a litmus test when it plays in American territory. The title “Beanpole,” a pejorative for Iya’s malnourished citizenship, means less to us literally than it does metaphorically. (It’s easy to imagine a closer-to-home Hollywood remake starring art-movie scammers Tilda Swinton, Emma Stone, and Daniel Day-Lewis, fulfilling mainstream media’s fantasies.)
Balagov’s visual design (contrasting vivid green and red against dark or desiccated backgrounds) conceptualizes dystopia, same as many other dispirited social critiques: Think Joker made with style. His best scene — Masha meets the mother of a weak soldier (Igor Shirokov) she schemes to marry — simplifies national tension from the two women’s opposite wartime experiences. The conflict between honesty and delusion distills the point of a fractious society that barely holds itself together. Beanpole is a Russian dossier that damns its source as well as its target.