Issue 68 (2020)

Kantemir Balagov: Beanpole (Dylda, 2019)

reviewed by Lilya Kaganovsky © 2020


In their 2019 volume titled Unwatchable, Nicholas Baer, Maggie Hennefeld, Laura Horak, and Gunnar Iversen set out to theorize—from the Greek, theoria, “to behold or look attentively”—the notion of the unwatchable as it relates not only to the contemporary images of violence that surround us, but also in the broader historical context of witnessing and recording the horrific events of the past century (Baer et al. 2019, 6). What, they ask, constitutes the unwatchable, and for whom?

dyldaTo begin with, as the editors note, the prefix “un-” in unwatchable expresses negation. Indeed, the unwatchable, like the uncanny in Freud, is the name for everything that “ought to have remained hidden … but has come to light” (Freud 1986, 225). It is a return of the repressed, something that we have scotomized, rejected, forgotten. Moreover, the unwatchable, like the uncanny, has to do with bodies and voices, of bearing witness to trauma, of ability and disability. Freud’s essay takes as its starting point E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman,” whose uncanny affect for Freud has to do with blindness and the threat of castration. The possibility of the body acting mechanically, of bodies out of control, of bearing witness and being forced to look, and finally, of losing one’s sight—all of these are at stake in the idea of the unwatchable as an aesthetic and ethical category. The second syllable in “unwatchable” privileges the visual realm, yet, as Baer, Hennefeld, Horak, and Iversen point out, the phenomena that it describes are almost always audiovisual, involving the acoustic and other sensory dimensions and prompting fully embodied, kinesthetic responses. And finally, as they note, the suffix “-able” highlights questions of ability and disability, calling attention to the capacities and limits of the human perceptual apparatus and different modes of experiencing the world (Baer et al. 2019,6–7). The cinema, James Price wrote in London Magazine in 1963, “lives by exposing things we long, yet dread to see.”[1]

Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole opens with an off-screen sound that can only be described as uncanny. The chocking, gasping, hiccupping, inhuman sound we hear over the opening credits has no origin in any visual image and therefore comes from “within,” as if we ourselves were producing it involuntarily. The voice as “material presence, as utterance, or as muteness,” the voice separated from the body but still acting as its “being, double, shadow of the image, as a power”—this voice against the black screen acts as a threat, disturbs perception, gives us chills (Chion 1999, 12). Even before we see the carefully photographed, centered, richly lit images, we are already listening, bending our ear to try to distinguish, to make sense of the sound that seems to be coming as much from the filmic space as from within us. “The ear attempts to analyze the sound in order to extract meaning from it […] always tries to localize and if possible identify the voice” (Chion 1999, 5; emphasis in the original). Such is the power of the acousmêtre, sound cinema’s most significant invention: the off-screen voice.

dyldaIn Balagov’s film, Iya—or “Dylda” (Beanpole), whose pejorative nickname refers to her ungainly height, while her given name is a kind of stutter “and me” (i ya)—spends much of the film without a voice, her ability to speak compromised by a war trauma that causes her temporarily to freeze in place, emitting unnatural guttural sounds. This is a perfect example of how in sound cinema, as Robert Spadoni has argued, sound constitutes horror; and this is particularly true when characters who should be able to speak, do not. In Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, the monster is gifted with speech; indeed, his long discourse is eloquent and does not substantially differ from that of Dr. Frankenstein himself. In the famous 1931 film adaptation of the novel, however, made only four years after the coming of sound, Frankenstein’s monster does not speak but “grunts and snarls,” making sounds that the film’s critics noticed and tried to describe alternatively as “mooing” and “barking” (Spadoni 2007, 101). Like the early viewers of Frankenstein, we too listen closely to Dylda’s vocal utterances, with “no choice” but to register “the sensuous qualities of the creature’s guttural noises and strangely plaintive coos” (Spadoni 2007, 101). When the image does appear, we still don’t understand what we are looking at: we see in extreme close-up a woman’s face whose body may or may not be responsible for the production of this unbearable sound, who appears to be (as subsequent shots reveal) frozen in place. Women in nursing uniforms move behind her, but their voices are muted and their images blurry. A high-pitched sound, like a ringing in the ears, drowns out the women’s voices, but leaves the heroine’s gulping perfectly clear. The focus, both aural and visual, is on Dylda / Iya, who takes up the majority of the screen space, the victim (as we learn) of a war-time trauma whose body no longer operates according to her will or control.

dyldaIndeed, women’s control over their bodies is precisely what is at stake in this second film by Balagov, a student of Aleksandr Sokurov, whose inspiration for the film came from Svetlana Alexievich’s War’s Unwomanly Face (U voiny ne zhenskoe litso, 1985) (Bodin 2019). Balagov sets out precisely to give the war a female face, to tell a story about the immediate post-Blockade lives of two women—who met at the front defending the motherland (or is it the Fatherland?)—and a desperate desire to perpetuate life in the middle of death even at the cost of more human suffering. From Iya’s inability to control her shell-shocked, concussed body that freezes whenever her trauma is retriggered, to voluntary and involuntary murder, to rape, the female body in this film is put through all of the unwatchable traumatic experiences we have come to associate with art house films determined to bring us gritty realism. There is an ethical component—a bearing witness—to the aesthetic experience of being forced to watch someone who fits badly into the world, who needs our protection, and with whom we are forced to identify through the “magic” of cinema, be abused over and over again before our eyes. Among other things, as her nickname indicates, Dylda is too big for the spaces around her, she cannot speak or stand up for herself, and thus easily becomes a victim of the wants and desires of others —and we must watch, even as she herself turns away.

dyldaThe dominant colors in the film are initially a monochromatic ochre / yellow / brown, contrasted sharply with the emerald green of Iya’s sweater and mittens (and her hands, later, stained with zelënka and green paint), and blood red (walls of her apartment, Masha’s red hair and sweater). As the film goes on, green and red compete for dominance: during a dinner scene, we see that Iya’s sweater is mostly green, but with a red thread running through the pattern, while Masha’s sweater is mostly red, but with a green collar. Masha partially repaints the red wall in their room with institutional green paint (the color of Soviet park benches and entryways), which remains a kind of stain on the unfinished wall. She then tries on a pretty green silk dress with tiny red flowers, which fills the screen with bright green as she spins about, and which she later stains with blood. Blues are absent altogether, except in the scene when Masha visits Sasha’s parents in the country, a sequence where cold white and blue dominate. When she comes back, she is wearing the borrowed green silk dress, while Iya has put on her red sweater. According to the cinematographer, Kseniia Sereda, Balagov chose the color palette himself and the film was color corrected in post-production.[2] It is clear that we are supposed to understand the two colors symbolically: as the two primary colors on the light color wheel (on which color cinema depends), when mixed together they produce yellow, the other dominant color of this film. Blue, the third primary color is excluded, as are the men who enter the two women’s lives.

dyldaEqually vital to our understanding of this film is the sound design, which, as the final credits make clear, involved almost a dozen sound engineers. The total absence of a non-diegetic score emphasizes the “realist” aspect of the film, aided by Sereda’s consistent use of travelling shots to follow her characters around the city and centered images when they are still. The camera work creates the illusion of intimacy, of complete immersion in the characters’ lives, while the absence of a musical score keeps us aurally attuned to the many silences of this film: Iya’s halting, ungrammatical speech, Masha’s frequent lapses into total silence, all of the things left unsaid. Extradiegetic music is finally introduced in the final credits, and yet, even here, it replicates the stutter of its main protagonist: the sounds of four instruments—voice, violin, accordion, and piano—cuts in and out, as if the film is unable to sustain a prolonged musical interlude, while we continue to hear the high-pitched sound associated with Iya’s catatonic state. Indeed, it is not clear that this is extradiegetic soundtrack at all: we are still hearing, it seems, the traumatic ringing inside Iya’s head.

dyldaJean-Claude Raspiengeas, writing for La Croix, compares the visual universe of Beanpole to that of László Nemes (Son of Saul [Saul fia, 2015] and Sunset [2018]), noting in particular the talented camerawork of its cinematographer, Kseniia Sereda (who, at 25, is even younger than Balagov, 28): “This astonishing film gropes its way forward to the root of one’s soul, remaining vibrant even in the midst of ruins” (Raspiengeas 2019).[3]

Indeed, the reference to László Nemes and his first independent film, Son of Saul is not out of place here, since that film too is about muteness, about the inability to speak, about bearing witness. Nemes’s father, András Jeles, was among the first to directly address the deportation of Hungarian Jews in his film Why Wasn’t He There? (Senkiföldje 1993). More than twenty years later, while working as an assistant on Bela Tarr’s The Man from London, Nemes came across texts written by Sonderkommandos, work groups comprising inmates who were forced to dispose of bodies. These were the so-called “scrolls of Auschwitz” found after the war. As Nemes puts it, “I never knew there were voices coming directly from the dead like that. I had the feeling I was thrown into the middle of it. It was not people thinking afterwards or giving testimonies. These were really the voices of the dead and I wanted to tell their story.”

dyldaAs Giorgio Agamben has noted, testimony contains at its core an essential lacuna: the survivors bear witness to something it is impossible to bear witness to; and the process of “giving voice to the dead” involves “listening to something absent.”[4] Just as the opening sounds of Beanpole teach us to strain our ears to hear, localize, and identify the sounds, so does the film as whole present the problem of audibility. We must train ourselves to listen to something absent.

Unlike the viewers who found the film “heartbreakingly empathetic,” I found it, in many instances, unwatchable. The awkwardness of the Russian title, Dylda (whose first syllable, dyl is constructed around the vowel y, the most “trivial” sound in the Russian language, as Andrei Bely once noted [5]), is matched by the awkwardness of its heroine and her lack of voice. The poster for the film emphasizes her muteness by placing a hand over her mouth, the fingers wrapped around the mouth like tentacles in Alien. I don’t think it’s incidental that the genre this film most evokes for me is not drama but horror: this is a film meant to provoke a visceral response. Like Alien this is a film about motherhood and maternity, about forced impregnation, about what it means for the body to belong to an other: the family, the state.

dyldaThe demand for procreation, articulated most clearly by the hospital poster, “Deti nashe budushchee” (“The Children Are Our Future”), points us to Lee Edelman and his radically uncompromising queer ethics, articulated in his No Future (2004). For Edelman, the all-pervasive figure of the child is the linchpin in our universal politics of “reproductive futurism.” The child, in its innocence and need for protection, represents the possibility of the future, while the queer is positioned as the embodiment of a relentlessly narcissistic, antisocial death drive. Despite protests to the contrary (Martynova 2019), Beanpole is of course a film about queerness and the possibility of refusing futurity and the social and political order that demands it. The final embrace of the film—and Iya’s insistence, “Ia naprasnaia vnutri” (“I am useless inside” as opposed to, “I am empty inside”)—opens up a possibility of a queer world in which women could live together without men, without being forced to be incubators for a future generation or the genocidal state that requires their bodies for its perpetuation. Referring to the accumulated consequences of Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and Fukushima—a list to which we might add the horrors of the Leningrad Blockade—Jean-Luc Nancy wrote that human life, in its capacity to think and to create, “is precipitated into a condition worse than misery itself: a stupor, a distractedness, a horror, a hopeless torpor” (Nancy 2015, 11; see also Crary 2019).

I can think of no better description of Iya’s state of being, than this.


Notes

1] James Price, “The DarkHouse,” London Magazine (Aug. 1963), 70-71; quoted in Spadoni 2007, 109.

2] According to the cinematographer, Kseniia Sereda, Balagov chose the palette himself and the film was color corrected in post-production (Anisimova 2019)

3] I am grateful to Margarette Flinn for help with the translation

4] “In its form, this book is a kind of perpetual commentary on testimony. It did not seem possible to proceed otherwise. At a certain point, it became clear that testimony contained at its core an essential lacuna; in other words, the survivors bore witness to something it is impossible to bear witness to. As a consequence, commenting on survivors’ testimony necessarily meant interrogating this lacuna or, more precisely, attempting to listen to it. Listening to something absent did not prove fruitless work for this author. Above all, it made it necessary to clear away almost all the doctrines that, since Auschwitz, have been advanced in the name of ethics.” (Agamben 1999, 13).

5] «Все слова на е р ы тривиальны до безобразия: не то «и»; «и-и-и» -- голубой небосвод, мысль, кристалл; звук и-и-и вызывает во мне представление о загнутом клюве орлином; а слова на «е р ы» тривиальны;  например: слово рыба; послушайте: р-ы-ы-ы-ба, то есть нечто с холодною   кровью...  И опять-таки м-ы-ы-ло: нечто склизкое; глыбы – бесформенное: тыл – место дебошей...» Andrei Bely, Petersburg

Lilya Kaganosky
University of Illinois

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Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. 1999. Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. New York: Zone Books.

Anisimova, Elena. 2019. “Znakomtes’, Kseniia Sereda – operator fil’ma ‘Dylda’, vydvinutogo na ‘Oskara’ ot Rossii.” Sobaka 22 October.

Baer, Nicholas; Maggie Hennefeld; Laura Horak; and Gunnar Iversen, eds. 2019. Unwatchable. New Brunswick: Rutledge University Press.

Bodin, Léa . 2019. “Une grande fille: rencontre avec le prodige du cinéma russe Kantemir Balagov.” Interview from 2 June. Allocine 07 August.

Chion, Michel. 1999. The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman. New York: Columbia University Press

Crary, Jonathan. 2019.  “Terminal Radiance.” In Unwatchable, edited by Nicholas Baer; Maggie Hennefeld; Laura Horak; and Gunnar Iversen, 59–62. New Brunswick: Rutledge University Press.

Edelman, Lee. 2004. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke University Press

Freud, Sigmund. 1986.  “The Uncanny.” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XVII, trans. James Strachey. London: Hogarth Press.

Nancy, Jean-Luc. 2015.  After Fukushima: The Equivalence of Catastrophes, trans. Charlotte Mandell. New York: Fordham University Press.

Martynova, Alena. 2019. “Kak mozhno snimat’ takuiu merzost’?! Prem’era ‘Dyldy’ s uchastiem Kantemira Balagova zakonchilas’ skandalom.” Komsomol’skaia Pravda, 28 June.

Raspiengeas, Jean-Claude. 2019. “‘Une grande fille’, deux femmes dans Leningrad détruite.” Le Croix 6 August. 

Spadoni, Robert. 2007. Uncanny Bodies: The Coming of Sound Film and the Origins of the Horror Genre. Berkeley: UC Press.


Beanpole, Russia, 2019
Color, 130 minutes
Director: Kantemir Balagov
Screenplay: Kantemir Balagov and Aleksandr Terekhov
Cinematography: Kseniia Sereda
Production Design Sergei Ivanov
Music Evgeni Galperin
Editing Igor Litoninskii
Cast: Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, Konstantin Balakirev, Andrei Bykov, Igor’ Shirokov, Kseniia Kutepova, Ol’ga Dragunova, Timofei Glazkov
Producers Alexander Rodnyansky, Sergei Melkumov
Production Non-Stop Production

Kantemir Balagov: Beanpole (Dylda, 2019)

reviewed by Lilya Kaganovsky © 2020

Updated: 2020