Sunday, September 8, 2019

Beanpole (Дылда): Conversation with Kantemir Balagov

Vera Mirochnichenko as Beanpole. Beanpole (Дылда) 2019.
New: Beanpole has been selected by the Russian Oscar Committee to compete for the Academy Awards as a foreign-language film from Russia. 

NB. The film will be shown at the Mill Valley Film Festival on October 9, 2019.

Film Program Note: 

What happens when war is given a woman’s face — and body? The two Red Army vets in Kantemir Balagov’s second feature (after TESNOTA) are women—attractive and very young. Nurse Iya, nicknamed Beanpole because of her height, and Masha, a decorated war hero, explore sex, love, death, and procreation in Leningrad, bled white by the war. The time is fall 1945. So, do not expect a springtime melodrama with white cranes against a blue sky. Enjoy, instead, the haunting daylight of the subpolar city; relish its rusty-red interiors inhabited by the heroines who seem to have walked off a Vermeer canvas (sublime cinematography by Ksenia Sereda). Beanpole offers period authenticity through the lens of the new generation. Winner of Best Director and the FIPRESCI prize at Cannes’s Un Certain Regard, as well as Queer Palm.

Conversation with Kantemir Balagov

What follows was adapted from a 45-minute interview, via Skype, that took place on 10 July 2019 and was arranged by the Telluride International Film Festival. Published in Telluride Festival's FILM WATCH 2019. Click here for a PDF. The film had its North American premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and will start appearing in US theaters on 29 January 2020.


GRISHA FREIDIN: This will be a conversation across centuries and continents. I was born deep in the 20th century in Moscow a year after the end of WWII and have lived in California for forty plus years; you are twenty– eight and grew up in Nalchik in the North Caucasus, more than a thousand miles south of Moscow. For me, your film was striking, first of all, because you were able to look at Russia’s holy of holies — the Great Patriotic War, the Blockade of Leningrad — in a totally new way: a story of two young women veterans making a go at normal life in the fall 1945, in subpolar Leningrad. This is both daring and symptomatic. It is daring for a man who grew up at the periphery of Russia, whose last name is not Russian, to take on a central, defining moment for the country’s self-image, even the legitimacy of its state, and to challenge its deepest dogma. Symptomatic, because in Russia (as elsewhere) the center doesn’t hold, and a new strong vision comes, like a hundred years ago, from the country’s periphery. What moved you to make this film?

Kantemir Balagov

KANTEMIR BALAGOV: Thank you. What moved me first was of course my self-confidence. Sooner or later, it will play a trick on me. But jokes aside, it all began in 2015 when I read Aleksievich’s Unwomanly Face of War. I was dumbstruck. I realized I was totally ignorant: I understood nothing about the war, neither about the feats of courage, nor the evil perpetrated. But the greatest revelation was the actual role that women played in the war. I had absorbed the stereotype that women served only as medical personnel or, in any case, stayed away from combat. Wrong! I had no idea what they had to go through, the tectonic inner shift they had to undergo, the biological, psychological shift. Мen, too. A human being, a biological being, who can generate life, enters war and gets totally surrounded by death. How can you live in peacetime after that? This question shook me to the core.

I was spell-bound, astounded by this [spiritual] destitution. I felt my duty as a human being, as citizen, to tell this story. Russian cinema today is quasi-patriotic, it carries a subtext “we can do this thing again [win WWII] — we aren’t afraid of anything” and so forth. This was a challenge for me, because in a war movie, the usual temptation is to focus on the transcendent: to show the extremes of human polarities, heroism and its opposite, evil. Yielding to such a temptation would  distort the picture of what a Soviet person was all about.

GRISHA: Like you, I was moved by Aleksievich’s volume, but her title, The Unwomanly Face of War, is so pointedly fem. In her thinking, war is masculine. But your war is a woman, because you have given it the face of a woman, along with all other organs (almost all), and they function, they are all in play. When it came out in 1985, her book was explosive but now, after your film, it becomes clear how much she was smoothing over the rough edges, even though ostensibly she set out to liberate herself from the Soviet war mythology — that all must sacrifice themselves for the sake of the state. But she did not question it the mythology of the feminine. Did she collaborate with you on the script?

KANTEMIR: No, unfortunately or, perhaps, fortunately, she did not. Her book was more an inspiration, and we borrowed some characters and some story elements. But the work on the script was done by Aleksander Terekhov and me. 

GRISHA: Is your film an allegory about generation? You have there a three-year-old boy, Pashka, his mother, or mothers, then characters of an older generation. In the Bible, a happy man is the one who lives long enough to see the children of his children. In your film, the child character dies, the pregnancy turns out to be false. Did you wish to say that your characters will leave the stage without heirs, that they had no future?

KANTEMIR: Honestly, when I use material from history, I concentrate on the dramatic aspect of the story. Allegory is something I begin to construct while putting together the director’s script or while editing the film. At the beginning, I am interested in what drives history, what motivates people, consequences of actions, and so forth. Later, when I was looking at the footage at the editing stage, I realized [I had an allegory]; what is curious is that I do certain things always by feel. I do many things by feel.

I realized that Pashka is for me the personification of a generation lost. Of course, it is a great misfortune to bury one’s children; for Masha, a double misfortune, because she did not see him die. But it is obvious, these people will not leave a legacy.

GRISHA: For me, it is equally important that Masha and Iya decide to live the illusion, rather than admit the fact of a false pregnancy. Indirectly, this says something about art, because art, too, is an illusion: it conveys this thing or that through allegory or another trope.

KANTEMIR: Exactly. The ending is a false pregnancy.

GRISHA: Your film could not have come out of any other country except Russia. You are a man of Russian culture through and through. But you deviate from the Russian tradition in one important respect: you have no saints. You may remember the saying that Alexander Solzhenitsyn liked so much: without a righteous person, no village can stand ("Matryona's House"). There isn’t even a hint of one in your film. Nor are there any perpetrators of evil.

KANTEMIR: I owe this to literature. When I studied [for five years] in Alexander Nikolaevich Sokurov’s film workshop, we had a great emphasis on Russian and foreign literatures. It was Sokurov’s principle: a film director must read more books and watch fewer films. He always instructed us, using his film about Hitler (Moloch, 1999) as an example, that we must always try and justify our protagonists, because they will be judged in any case, without us. We must not place ourselves, as authors, above the protagonist. It is hubris, and I try to avoid it. I prefer to walk on their path alongside them, not above them. In any case, this is how I see it is done in belles lettres. As an author, I am always interested in finding motives for the amoral choice of my characters, in understanding their motivation and showing the audience that, under the circumstances, they could not have done otherwise. But the author must avoid judging them from a high moral perch and issue pronouncements on what is right and what is wrong. Why? Because I myself do not know what is right.

GRISHA: In your film, there are no prayers, no idols, like busts of Stalin… this is very unusual for a period Russian film.

KANTEMIR: We were careful to removes the idols from the frame, even though the art director tried to insist on having them…

GRISHA: What struck me most about “Beanpole” is that you broke the basic war story formula, one that goes back to Homer, I mean the masculinity of war. Man goes to war, struggles, endures suffering, prevails, and — gets the girl. Of course, there was Jean d’Ark, but she was, pointedly, a virgin. You have none of that.

KANTEMIR: There is a striking film by Larisa Shepitko, Wings (1966), a story of a young woman [veteran pilot] after the war but it takes place later [than Beanpole]. This film was a source of inspiration, along with Alexei German’s My Friend IvanLapshin (1985) and Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying (1957).

Concluding shots from The Ctanes Are Flying. 1957
GRISHA: You are in a polemical dialogue with Kalatozov’s Cranes by playing up references to “The Dying Swan” ballet. I mean the scene in the hospital when the patients entertain the little Pashka with charades. He guesses it’s a bird, when a vet who is missing a hand waves his arms in imitation of “The Dying Swan.” But the boy fails to guess a dog from the patients’ barking, because during the Blockade, all the dogs had been eaten. You seem to be saying that birds and the hope they represent fit into the official memory of war, but death from starvation, the eating of dogs and cats, even cannibalism, is passed over in silence.

Beanpole (Дылда) 2019
KANTEMIR: Yes, you can say that.

GRISHA: You also have “The Dying Swan” gesture in one of the last scenes, when Iya is sitting with her back to us and tries to take off her bra.

Beanpole (Дылда) 2019

KANTEMIR: Yes, of course, it is the same bird.

GRISHA: Viktoria Miroshnichenko, who plays Beanpole with such power, is the star of the film. Did you shape the film around her, or did she fit your original concept?

KANTEMIR: When casting, our chief criterion was the height. For me the main principle here was yin-yang, and not just in the psychological sense but in the physical sense, too. I needed something striking because my heroine represents a composite image. Its source, for the most part, are the characters in Andrey Platonov’s prose: “Yushka”, “Fro,” “Dzhan.” What I wanted was to find a person of this type in life, and Vika Miroshnichenko is little bit like them, not 100%, but her actions and the way of thinking are sometimes a little off, not exactly as in Platonov but enough so…

GRISHA: I understand. She is a “holy fool,” and Platonov’s characters come from this Russian cultural and literary tradition, but Beanpole is not entirely “holy.” And that’s the difference between you and Platonov in terms of moral economy. You have neither saints not fiends. Even your Lyubov Petrovna, the haughty wife of a high party functionary, who at first attacks Masha, turns out to be, like Masha, rather soft and vulnerable on the inside. She says so herself: “We are more alike that you think.”

KANTEMIR: This is exactly what we wanted. We did not want to follow the well-trodden path, saying that the upper stratum always consists of parasites and scoundrels.

GRISHA: You’ve succeeded.

KANTEMIR: Alas, not everyone sees it this way. On the contrary, some say that by showing the vast chasm between the top and the ordinary people, we assumed a judgmental stance.

GRISHA: Of course, you did not. Even her rather menacing-looking husband, as it turns out, appreciates human pain and feels it.

KANTEMIR: Exactly. He says [after the fracas at the table]: “Now you’ve met, and that’s good.” Meaning, let’s stop tearing at each other and move on.

GRISHA: Yes. In Russian, it’s just three words but they speak volumes! You have extraordinary actors. When Masha explains why she passed her newly-born to Iya and returned to fighting with her artillery unit, she says: “To avenge! Avenge!” But the tiny pause between the two words shows her realizing that she had been caught in someone else’s language, the bombast that now sounds tinny. Platonov would have envied the emotional precision and the philosophical depth of her ineloquence.  

KANTEMIR: Thank you.

GRISHA: I want to go back to the main theme: how you re–gendered or even un-gendered the war. Beginning with Homer, men fight, shed blood, sometimes die, in short, men risk their life in combat, but in the end, the man gets the girl. Man gets compensated for his valor. That’s the basis of all our war mythology. But you took your story out of this framework altogether. Your story does not conform to the venerable pattern, and this is probably why sex in you film is never right. Copulations are odd, to put it mildly, and love-making never really works. Did you seek to overturn this war film convention?

KANTEMIR: Yes. And this is why [in Russian] the film is called Dylda, [meaning an awkward giant who is not quite bright]. For me, it signifies being ungraceful, being disoriented, lost in space, but my characters, befuddled as they are, have feelings just likes the rest of us, and like us, they have sex and make love, if in a state of bewilderment. It was really important for us to show this disorientation of life in the aftermath of the war.

What you say about Homer is right. I despise machismo and testosterone excess. But this [rejection of the Homeric framework] was more a matter of the unconscious intuition than by design.

GRISHA: You spent five years studying in Alexander Sokurov’s film workshop in Nalchik, he is your most important mentor. It occurred to me when I watched the film, that Beanpole may be affiliated with Sokurov’s The Russian Ark. There is a scene in his film when, as de Custine tours the Hermitage, a set of doors opens, revealing a Hermitage storage room during the Blockade and a curator crazed by starvation to the point of cannibalism.

Alexander Sokurov. Russian Ark. 2002
Sokurov hastily closes the doors, but I had a sense that you entered that storage room and went on to shoot Beanpole in the blockade Leningrad, while Sokurov went on with the tour. Sokurov does brilliant, deep exploration of myths, but you appear to have departed from that universe mythologies in order to take a fresh look at the world and say new things. At the same time, you are his disciple, and you have the mastery of his cinematic toolkit. Like Sokurov, you convey visually a powerful appreciation of the art of painting. Watching Beanploe makes one feel as if Hermitage paintings framing your humble characters are staring at the audience from the screen. This sounds like an old story about the mentor and the disciple. The disciples always go on their own and take with them the mentor’s most valuable tools.

KANTEMIR: What you are saying is very interesting and I will be thinking about it. I am convinced that Sokurov found Closeness [Balagov’s first feature film, 2017] not too much to his liking. And I am sure he will not like Beanpole. He has not seen it yet, but I am 90% sure he will not like it. I am intrigued by what you are saying there is a lot to reflect on.

GRISHA: Now I want to return to the question of gender in your film. I live in California and people here, on the whole, are open-minded about gender and gender-bending. But even in Moscow, as I was growing up in the late 1950s and 1960s, I had a few gay friends and thought nothing of it. I think this is how it is in a big city. Do you expect to be criticized in Russia for your treatment of same-sex love? Will you be accused of the crime of “advocating homosexuality”?

KANTEMIR: You know, I was very skeptical when we were nominated for the Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, but not because of some antigay prejudices. I am absolutely tolerant of and treat as normal any form that love is expressed in. Love should not have gender, and for me, this is obvious. The Queer Palm nomination, by my lights, tended to narrow the whole complex of motives that made up my characters. It narrowed their range as human beings. I wanted my characters to be motivated, not by some form of sexual desire or other, but by the human, heartbreaking feeling of loneliness. A human being needs another human being first of all; gender comes second. This is why when people begin to view my characters through the prism of same-sex love, I find it constricting. But I am not going to protest against it.

GRISHA: At the time of the film, in that generation, there may not have even been a language for same-sex love.  When I was growing up, lesbian love was out of the ken; male homosexuality was another matter: it constituted a criminal offense.

KANTEMIR: I suspect, people may not have reflected on what it was that drew them to each other. Motivation — that was the task I set before my heroines. But in general, when I studied historical materials, personal diaries, I did come across same-sex romance among women. So, for me, all of this is first of all about being human.  Machismo ss a subject for another film. In this one, the principal heroine is a woman, and I feel very comfortable with women.

GRISHA: You were very fortunate in your choice of the cinematographer. Twenty-three-year-old Ksenia Sereda was a great find!

KANTEMIR: Yes, it was a stroke of good fortune that was able to work as a director of photography. Every person has a male and a female side. In my case, I try to understand my own femininity with the help of my heroines. I want to shoot my next film about guys, men, and in this way to understand better my own male side. It is through my characters that, among other things, I study myself, and this is why my first two films were about women.

GRISHA: You have a striking scene early on that takes place in a women’s bath house: a gathering of many nude female bodies. It is very painterly and brings to mind “The Turkish Bath,” an erotic painting by Ingres, in the oriental style. But Sereda sees it in a way that is the opposite of Ingres. Whose idea was it?

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Turkish Bath. 1859.
KANTEMIR: No. The source of inspiration was, rather, archival photos.

Beanpole (Дылда) 2019
GRISHA: I suspect Ksenia Sereda had seen this painting. It has the same piling up of female nudes, and for someone who knows this painting the similarity is striking.

KANTEMIR: That’s curious.

GRISHA: And then, the echoes of Vermeer, his light, the color that you called in some interview “the rust of humanity.”

KANTEMIR: Yes, the shot of Beanpole in the hospital comes from Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earing.”

Vermeer. Girl with a Pearl Earing. 1665.

GRISHA: There is also something from Botticelli’s “La Primavera.”

KANTEMIR: Yes, in a way. it’s a composite image.

GRISHA: This is brilliant cinematography. When Beanpole has her seizure, when she freezes, the take lasts for the duration of her fit, in real time, so to speak. The effect is that a movie becomes frozen into a photograph and then the photograph comes to, becoming a movie again.

Beanpole (Дылда) 2019.
KANTEMIR: This was all done on purpose; we made an effort to time the shots in order to achieve this effect. The idea was that space must freeze along with the heroine.

GRISHA: Visually, this is a high note, and Sereda holds it throughout the film, down to the last shot of Beanpole’s profile, when she has a streak of blood running down her cheek. Did Masha draw blood when she hit Beanpole?

KANTEMIR: This was unplanned. The blood is real; Masha hit her so hard, that she drew blood. When this happened, I thought, first, that it would be too much bleeding. Masha had a nose bleed at the dinner with Sasha’s parents, and now Beanpole is bleeding. But then it occurred to me that if fate had given me this shot, it must be made part of the final take.

GRISHA: What about the Robert Capa photograph of the two women dancing in the streets of Moscow in 1947? When I saw it first, I knew I had to write about it, and I did.

Robert Capa. Moscow 1947.
KANTEMIR: Yes, I studied Capa’s photographic series from when he and John Steinbeck visited Moscow, Stalingrad, and Georgia. I researched them when I was working on Beanpole. This particular photograph of two women dancing was one of my inspiration for the film. The scene in the film when Masha tries on the green dress — this scene was inspired by this photograph. When I saw Capa’s photo, I had that heartbreaking feeling about these women: they lost their youth because of the war. And the green dress scene in the film is also about lost youth; she took off her soldier’s uniform for the first time, took off her boots, she put on a dress – but she feels nothing at all, nothing is coming back… This how it is for Masha. Her youth came to an end all at once. She did not get to live it: at some point, it simply disappeared from her life.

GRISHA: This is when Beanpole wants to comfort Masha and begins to kiss her passionately, but affection does not work; then Masha does the same to Beanpole who has suddenly gone frozen lying on top of Masha. This time Beanpole is unresponsive. This is a brilliant take on sexual love, a reminder that there are situations when nothing works out. People tend to forget these instances, leave them out of the story, because they want to think that sex has to be as it is in the films of Antonio Banderas…

KANTEMIR: True. But I thought about something else: from the outside, it all always looks awkward. It is only in in porno films or in the particularly passionate movies where sexual love is beautiful, gracious, and so forth. We tried to avoid this approach, as in the scene of sex in the car…

GRISHA: Yes, well done. Two young guys went out cruising, hunting for girls but it turns out they are miserable, pathetic, embarrassed, one feels a little sorry for them.

KANTEMIR: They are without malice. And the tension is resolved by their laughter, childish laughter.

GRISHA: Finally, about politics. You are going against the grain of the official take on the war. I don’t mean to say that you are taking it on directly, but the sensibility of the film is deeply subversive.

KANTEMIR: Whether it is so or not — time will tell. I try to be apolitical. When your art gains in political relevance, it loses in artistic merit. But there is a political subtext in whatever we do, because we cannot exist without politics. But when you intentionally go for a political end, your work begins to suffer from calculation and loses value as art.

Berkeley — St. Petersburg. 10 July 2019