Warring Bodies: On Beanpole and Swallow

Beanpole | MUBI
MUBI

Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), the titular “Beanpole” of Russian filmmaker Kantemir Balagov’s second film, has post-concussion syndrome. Periodically, she’s sent through phases of catatonic stupor. Soft, choking sounds coupled with a persistent ringing accompany these temporary paralyses and signal our entry into Beanpole, appearing even before she is shown on-screen mid-freeze. She’s brought the syndrome back from the front, where she used to serve as an anti-aircraft gunner. Her recurrent episodes are signs of how deeply the war has burrowed into her. It wrenches her repeatedly into the past, even as barren, shaken Leningrad tries to recover and move on in the months after the war. 

Beanpole’s young director has mentioned in interviews that his film grew out of accounts of women documented in Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. Accordingly, it relinquished the grand scale, black-and-white images and male-centred nationalistic narratives of previous war films to bring its focus to the interior, to life back home instead of at the front, to women returned from the war to tend to wounded soldiers in hospitals, and to their interiors—their bodies that carry scars and are yet capable of life and renewal. In fact, it’s in the female body—manifested through seizures, exhaustion and malnourishment, nosebleeds, sterility and fertility—that much of the film’s anxieties about the past, as well as aspirations for the future, are focused. 

Interior spaces dominate the frames of Beanpole. The film exists and unfolds inside hospital wards and cramped living quarters, within spacious dining halls and packed streetcars. These spaces are infused with vivid shades of red and green, colors that carry the weight of death and trauma on the one hand and life and hope on the other. The briefly-glimpsed exteriors, by contrast, are bland; Leningrad’s devastated, wintry landscape drained of all life and monochromatic. Characters step out of the film’s vibrant interiors in drab coats, as if to match with the outside, while bursts of color on dresses and sweaters—bearing the burden of their individual histories, sufferings, hopes and disappointments—hide just underneath. 

The film’s narrative is punctuated by Iya’s seizures, which occur without warning, underscoring how difficult it is to shake off a traumatic past. But she’s by no means their only casualty. Most directly and tragically, they affect the young boy Pashka (Timofey Glazkov) left under her care; one night, the sudden immobility of her tall body chokes the life out of his little one. Shortly before this, a veteran at the hospital where Iya works, in a bid to entertain the little boy, mimes a bird. With his amputated arm however, the soldier can only mimic a wounded bird. It’s a striking shot, poignant and powerful, and the only act in the soldier’s game that Pashka can guess. He’s seen birds on the peeling wallpaper of Iya’s room. Later in the film, when Iya tries to conceive a child by keeping her belly warm, in an attempt to restore what she’s accidentally taken away, the scarf around her neck bears the motif of a bird. In a film with little dialogue and lengthy silences, color, symbols, and visual links offer the most potent clues to character, thought, and action. 

Pashka’s death sets the tone for the film in its first act and also drives Iya’s relationship with Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), the boy’s mother, feeding its alternately manipulative and affectionate nature. The complexity of this bond—encapsulating a need to control, a deep love as well as a quiet resentment—hardly compares with the more awkward, matter-of-fact relationships the two women form with men out of necessity. Red-haired Masha, with blood often trickling down her nose and clad almost exclusively in red, the color signalling the loss and trauma she has faced in the war, wants her dead child replaced by another that she hopes to conceive. In a remarkable scene shot in a bathhouse, Masha, surrounded by other women, tells Iya that she wants to have a child inside her again. In spite of the assembling of female nudes, the scene casts a tender rather than an erotic gaze at bodies capable of creation but impaired irreversibly by war. Its full impact is felt moments later when Masha is told by the hospital doctor that all life-giving ability has dried up within her. This prompts her decision to choose a replacement, this time of her womb by another’s—Iya’s, who, clothed primarily in green, embodies the promise of continuance and regeneration. 

While death pervades the film, it’s the death of children and the difficulty of birthing and raising them that’s repeatedly emphasized, this morbid fact posing a threat not only to the future of its characters but also to that of a ravaged nation. 

***

Haley Bennett in Swallow | IFC Films
IFC Films

In Swallow, Hunter (Haley Bennett) has pica, a disorder which compels her to ingest inedible objects found around the house. She swirls ice cubes, marbles, thumbtacks, and batteries around in her mouth, listening to them call out to her in whispers, hearing sounds of birds, laughing children, and the sea as she savors their textures, connected, alive and sated in a way she rarely feels in her everyday life. The condition manifests soon after she finds out she’s pregnant, a discovery that, thanks to the people around her, already burdens the unborn child and its carrier with ideas of inheritance and duty. She’s frequently dismissed and condescended to by her husband and his parents and it’s obvious that the little interest they take in her is because of the baby she’s expecting. While she may not have had a choice in its conception, in Swallow, Hunter comes to realize that what she intentionally puts and holds inside her can also help to reassert control. Her body is the site of coercion and expectation but also of rebellion. Hunter’s pica becomes her way back to her own body, a way to make decisions for it again, however painful and destructive.  

Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis has cited his grandmother, a homemaker in the 1950s in a difficult marriage who obsessively washed her hands and was later institutionalized by her husband, as the inspiration for the story. Within the film, rituals of cleaning and inflictions of discomfort upon oneself become ways to fill up a solitary life and maintain control where little is permitted. But in Davis’ essential and wishful rewriting of that family history, his heroine is given a chance to resist and allowed the possibility of escape, independence, and self-assertion where in reality there had been none.     

When Hunter first appears on screen, all we see is her short blonde bob. She pats the hair down with her hand, a gesture she’ll repeat habitually throughout the film. She has a nervous, retiring, apologetic manner, her pitch and observations unnaturally even and saccharine, with a forced steadiness possibly born out of numbing herself to daily insults and humiliations. The space she inhabits is a tidy, swanky house, all glass and mirrors, straight lines and sharp angles, enveloped in dreamy pastel shades and with stunning views of the surrounding landscape. She spends much of her time cleaning it, vacuuming, picking drapes, and plucking leaves out of the pool, an all-too-perfect, empty, candy-colored prison where she’s been stationed and forgotten. Her husband Richie (Austin Stowell), much like the house, looks like he belongs in an advertisement. His declarations of love are as predictable as his conduct, and just as deceptive. He asserts Hunter’s perfection, then follows it up by huffing over a wrongly ironed tie. A sense of the unreal imbues the film’s first half, as if viewed through gossamer filters, distancing its impossibly beautiful world and characters from our own present time and reality, where such behavior and actions would be hard to imagine let alone withstand.   

And yet the serene beauty of Swallow’s opening frames is punctured by the sudden, violent slaughter of a lamb for a celebratory dinner. It’s an early visual motif that will be repeated later to forge connections and understanding in a film where conversations are scarce and what’s inside is reluctant to come out in the open. As Hunter does up the nursery, she considers a mobile with miniature lambs to hang above the crib, a cue to the theme of consumption that will dominate the film, its central character both consuming and consumed by her surroundings. Similarly, Haley Bennett’s face, taut and determined as it is to keep all emotions in check, occasionally has a chink—quick jerks of the head, a gulp or even a side-eye—which reveals so much of her internal struggle; the visual is, once again, our guide in a film filled with silences. However, as Swallow progresses and Hunter finds her voice—its arrival marked by the angry scream she lets out during her first argument with Richie—the film’s color palette and tone shift. It pulls her out of her dreamy glass prison and hurls her into a more recognizable world of suburban homes, malls, and realistic dialogue.     

The culmination of Hunter’s path to self-assertion is ultimately marked not by what she decides to put inside it but by what she chooses to eliminate from it. In a busy public women’s restroom––the location itself carrying associations of the outside and freedom, all of which are new for Hunter, and in stark contrast to the plush bathroom we have seen her in previously––she expels the fetus after medically inducing an abortion. It’s a powerful moment with perhaps no exact precedent in cinema. Moreover, as opposed to all the impermissible objects she has swallowed through the film, much to the bewilderment of her family and therapist, it’s a doctor this time who instructs her to “swallow” (the pill), thereby effectively validating her decision. 

***

Beanpole and Swallow are not the most obvious choices for a comparative study. Their time periods, cultural, and historical contexts, languages and countries of production are vastly dissimilar. Broadly speaking, one film is about war and the destruction it unleashes on generations, while another is about the insidious nature of patriarchy and a dangerous disorder that shakes a woman out of her passivity. Ostensibly, they have little in common besides telling women-centric stories. And yet, while driving their distinctive narratives forward, both films rely heavily on themes like female bodies and dysfunction, children and death, legacy and motherhood, choice, and the loss of and desire for control, and make similar use of stylistic and formal tools such as color, interior and exterior space, motifs, and sound design. Given their diverging contexts, times and plots, Beanpole and Swallow may not always share their perspectives on issues, but the issues their stories pivot around are curiously the same.     

The female body is at the center of both films. We see it afflicted by conditions, brought on by environmental and psychological factors, which leave it scarred, heaving, bleeding, undernourished, barren, and temporarily paralyzed. Added to this is the idea of a woman’s fertility and specifically her womb as a receptacle for fulfilling desires and furthering legacies, reducing its owner to her reproductive function. In Beanpole, Masha demands a child of Iya, obsessively tracking her cycle, finding her a mate and putting her through an experience Iya is plainly reluctant to participate in, all for a child she believes Iya owes her for inadvertently killing Pashka. In Swallow, once Richie and his parents learn of Hunter’s pica, they reserve their primary concern for the unborn child, “the future CEO of our company” as the patriarch calls it, rather than for her, putting her into therapy and a medical facility only to secure her compliance until the baby is born. Once it’s born, she’ll likely be as neglected as before or, worse, abandoned.    

Also interesting in this discussion, both in terms of idea and usage, is the contrast between a body that is full as opposed to one that is vacant. Hunter’s pregnancy coupled with the nature of her compulsion brings about a sense of overcrowding; this is made most clear during an ultrasonogram when the doctor spots a lot more than what she’d expected to find in Hunter’s belly. This idea of excess also points to how much she has repressed inside her. On the other hand, in Beanpole, when she learns she’s not pregnant, Iya tells the doctor that she’s “empty.” The term carries the sheer, desolate weight of the post-war moment. A child would have been a beacon of hope. 

The absence of children, their early deaths, and terminations of pregnancies also link the two films. In Beanpole, alongside Pashka, we hear of other children who have died during the war. Masha’s infertility may be the result of multiple abortions, a wound, or an operation—we never really know. Even the film’s closing scene, where the two women discuss a possible future together, is built on the absence of a child, a false pregnancy. In Swallow, much before Hunter decides to go through with her abortion, there’s talk of another non-abortion, namely her mother’s, which brings her own existence into question. Hunter’s mother had been raped by her biological father but the former’s religious beliefs prevented her from terminating the pregnancy. Hunter’s abortion then breaks the oppressive cycle that had begun with the circumstances of her birth.

Motherhood is also a loaded subject in both films, shared in one and denied in the other. Just as Masha and Iya are both mothers to Pashka through functions of nature and nurture, when Iya has sex with the doctor in the hope of being impregnated, she clutches on to Masha as if extending the moment and experience to her through touch. In Swallow, Hunter’s apathy is such that she needs to be reminded of her pregnancy. It’s a feeling she appears to share with her own mother who, despite Hunter’s reassurances to her therapist, seems indifferent to her daughter’s needs when Hunter reaches out for help and comfort. In Beanpole, much is pegged on motherhood and even more engineered and endured for it. With little else left to hold on to, its characters see it, perhaps naively, as the thing that will help them emerge from this moment of death. In it rests the potential to begin anew, to lend meaning and purpose to the years that lie ahead. Swallow, more cynical in this regard, strips motherhood of that hopefulness. The ability to create and raise another human being in itself is not seen as a cause for celebration. When enforced as it is in the film, motherhood is a burden, an inconvenience. It is a token of past pain, a reminder of how one’s selfhood has been denied.

Swallow | IFC Films

The idea of control also interestingly figures in this context in both films. In Beanpole, Iya and Masha share an intense, mercurial relationship, tender and yet demanding and exploitative. There is an ambiguity to their affection, its force and dependency amplified by the loss each has encountered. They sleep next to each other in a scene which echoes an earlier one of Iya and Pashka sleeping together, imbuing their bond with a sense of the maternal, and yet only moments later kiss and tussle like lovers. The sudden and constant presence of the boy Sasha (Igor Shirokov) in their lives, who becomes smitten with Masha, makes Iya envious. Even her decision to have Masha’s child relates to her need to become her “master.” Just as Masha knows that she can get Iya to bear her a child because of the debt owed to her through Pashka’s death, Iya understands that a child will help to hold the willful Masha close. Power constantly shifts in this complex dynamic in which each struggles for control over the other, a child often a means to that control. In Swallow, the pregnancy becomes not a way to ascertain control but the last step in its loss. It co-opts Hunter’s body in a process in which she has no say. It is also what triggers her pica, her first episode occurring soon after Richie’s announcement of the pregnancy to his parents. While Hunter admits to her therapist that swallowing dangerous objects made her feel in control, the risk of the ingestions gave her a thrill not just because these were decisions she took for her body. They were also, both literally and figuratively, her attempts to negate the pregnancy.        

Insofar as both films include a generational element, ideas of perpetuation and likeness work in very intriguing ways in two key scenes. In Swallow, realizing the need to deal with past trauma, Hunter goes to meet her biological father, Erwin (Denis O’Hare), now blissfully settled into domesticity after having served time for her mother’s rape—a fact he’s clearly kept from his new family. Simultaneously drawn to and repelled by this newly-formed family unit, she asks him if she’s like him. Her question is the outcome perhaps of years of shame, censure and self-reproach which only, painfully, his affirmation of her innocence will release her of. Her decision to terminate a link to an unwanted future, then, is tied to the crucial ending of a distressing connection with the past. 

Beanpole closes with Iya and Masha, their colors reversed for the first time just as their roles are, speaking of the boy they’ll raise together. In hushed tones, they talk about how they’ll take him to the cinema, of him growing up to be tall and smart, inheriting their features. It’s a desperate, deluded clutch at a reality that doesn’t exist. But it points to a different, if not less hopeful future. As the two women embrace, the distinctive red and green of their clothes and their paths finally fusing, the film seems to pose a different alternative—one in which a child may not be the only means to fulfillment.

Beanpole and Swallow are films that end on new beginnings. In both, characters pin their hopes for the future on children the protagonists are expecting or hoping to expect. These unborn children project a prearranged idea of the future. But their absence by the end of each film, deliberate or unintentional, opens up new possibilities for the women. Unknown and hence adaptable, these are futures Iya, Masha, and Hunter perhaps haven’t considered before, ones in which hope and promise lie not in another but in oneself. Not in carrying life and relinquishing control, but in taking command of one’s own. This is hope borne out of loss, hard-won and resolute. A message of female resilience and self-assertion echoes strongly at the end of both films. Children and motherhood may still feature in this new future but the choices behind them will be solely their own. 

Female bodies and the wars they wage make up the bulk of Beanpole and Swallow. In the lives these women will find on the other side, however, those bodies, one hopes, will finally be at peace—free, healing, and in control.