Article taken from The Face Volume 4 Issue 002. Order your copy here.
Kantemir Balagov is telling me how to get high from kids’ eyedrops. Growing up in the Russian city of Nalchik – in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains – abusing seemingly benign pharmaceuticals was a creative and cheap way for the young director to get his kicks.
“We didn’t have a lot to do!” he protests. “But if you just put a few eyedrops in your nose, you can’t feel your legs. It’s like floating.”
It’s the same wilfully rebellious streak you can imagine the 28-year-old harnessing for his second feature, Beanpole – a bleak and utterly bonkers film that has shaken his home country. It’s the story of two women who fall in angry, passionate love just after the Second World War, in the ruined city of Leningrad.
“In modern Russia, war films are only about patriotism,” says Balagov, on junket duty in London, and wearing a white Vetements hoodie (the label that has, since its founding by Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia in 2014, become a shorthand for post-Soviet cool). “But there are no absolutes in war. You cannot be an absolute hero or an absolute coward. For me, it’s like always in the middle. But the government has another point of view.”
He knew that Beanpole would make him a lightning rod for controversy. At this year’s Cannes, where he won Best Director in the film festival’s arty Un Certain Regard strand, Balagov walked the red carpet with a literal target on his chest.
When the movie hit Russian cinemas in June, audiences were polarised. On the Russian ratings site Megacritic.ru, viewers describe it as “perverted”, “pathological” and “lesbian propaganda” (which, frankly, are also some of the most compelling reasons to watch it). When Beanpole was selected in October to be Russia’s entry for this year’s International Feature Film Oscar, the trolls seemed to multiply, outraged by the film’s skewering of conservative norms and queering of Mother Russia.
But Balagov, who’s just polished off avocado on toast for breakfast, seems to be taking that in his stride, calling the reaction “bizarre”. He’s especially bemused by the rumour that the movie is some kind of anti-Russian propaganda: “The critics say: ‘How can you make a film about this great patriotic war with two lesbians? Perhaps there are American backers behind the project!’”
Beanpole was inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s sprawling female-focused oral history of the Second World War, The Unwomanly Face of War. For research, Balagov discovered diaries written by early-20th-century Russian women, who detailed their longing for other women and clandestine lesbian trysts. (LGBT life in Russia is still fraught with secrecy and danger. In 2013, President Vladeimir Putin stoked homophobia with “anti-gay propaganda” laws and refused to condemn the horrific 2017 “purge” in Chechnya, where it is thought over 200 gay people were tortured and three killed.)
Beanpole’s activist message is slow to unfurl. The naive Iya (the tall “beanpole” of the film’s title) has been taking care of the child of Marsha, an impish Isabella Rosselinni lookalike who has been off to war. When Marsha returns, the pair embark on a string of affairs with weedy men, the most uncomfortable threesome ever committed to celluloid (one participant cries throughout), a touch of all-night boozing, and some dark nights of the soul which bring to mind the twisted power-play of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s stunning 1972 film The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant.
Beanpole is an important entry into a developing canon of LGBT Russian cinema. As a genre, it’s still slight enough to be overlooked, comprising of moody romances such as Creation of Adam (1994) and Winter Journey (2013), as well as arty rarities like Moscow Fags (1995) and the hook-up app horror Pyotr495 (2015). But Balagov – who is straight – is surprisingly reticent to call Beanpole a queer film: “If someone wants to call it like that, please do,” he shrugs. “But for me, it was about human beings’ relationships. Love shouldn’t have a gender.”
It’s a noble enough sentiment, but his words seem underpinned by a mistaken belief that calling a movie “queer” is in some way restrictive, or puts it in a box. Proudly LGBT movies such as Milk, from the US, France’s 120 BPM and Chile’s Oscar-winning A Fantastic Woman have had runaway success in part because of their smart marketing as queer films that all audiences can love. But Balagov doesn’t see it that way. “For me it’s not the point,” he says of Beanpole’s lesbian themes.
The director hasn’t always shied away from identity politics, though. His first film, 2017’s Closeness, is a brilliant and underseen tale of kidnapping, forbidden romance and teen tearaways in Nalchik, located in an area of Russia known as the Kabardino-Balkar Republic, near the Georgian border. At the opening of the film, Balagov intones in voiceover: “I am a Karbadian” (a reference to his own ethnicity). He says that Nalchik is characterised by the sometimes-uneasy co-existence of Kabardians, Bulgarians and Russians.
“At least half the population have very ingrained divisions. When I was a child, the first question people asked each other when meeting was: ‘What’s your nationality?’”
From the age of eight, he would hang outside makeshift raves in the countryside that blasted Eurodance, and later skip school to smoke weed and indulge in those mind-expanding eyedrops. But he avoided the heroin that some of his mates fell prey to.
“I like the roughness of this region because I do think that it helped me not become kind of super-refined,” he says. “I think the streets gave me something unique.”
At 18, Balagov’s father bought him a DSLR camera, and he later enrolled in a filmmaking course run by Alexander Sokurov, the director of 2002’s stunning one-shot drama Russian Ark. It opened Balagov’s eyes not just to cinema but to culture as a whole. Before starting Sokurov’s course he’d only read two books. Now, he adores the masters of the human condition: Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Faulkner.
Balagov is not all weighty existentialism, though. He loves video games like Uncharted and Red Dead Redemption, the Scary Movie film series, and he once travelled all the way from Moscow to see his favourite football team, Manchester United, play at Old Trafford.
On his right arm he has an inked sleeve inspired by Faust, who struck a desperate deal with the devil, but his other tattoos are delightfully naff. There’s a Thirty Seconds to Mars symbol on his wrist (he insists he doesn’t listen to them any more) and the ink on his left forearm reads “Hakuna matata” the “problem-free philosophy” from The Lion King. “It’s such a cute film!” he insists. “Its impact was huge for me.”
Amid the smear campaign against him and Beanpole, perhaps that Disney motto is serving him well. Balagov might not have no problems for the rest of his days, but he seems ready to float above them. Without the aid of eyedrops.
Hair Michael Harding, Photography Assistance Luca Strano, Production Rosanna Gouldman