Leningrad, first Autumn after the war (the caption doesn‘t stipulate which war, but I think we can assume it‘s the Second World one). We see an unfeasibly tall blonde woman emitting a series of grunts and gurgles. This is Iya, who contracted PTSD at the front and is now working in a hospital, despite still being prone to experiencing the odd fit.
Iya is usually accompanied by the boy Pashka, another victim of the war and its aftermath. Patients at the hospital – mainly soldiers who cannot be repaired – play a game with him, mimicking animal noises. Pashka is not able to join in with an imitation of a dog – how could he know what they sound like? All the dogs have been eaten long ago.
Iya has another fit and crushes Pashka, killing him. Contrary to first impressions, Iya is not Pashka’s mother. That would be Masha, another soldier who has her own disorders, and is returning to Leningrad soon. Masha is unable to have any more children, so she bullies Iya into trying to get pregnant to produce a child which she would then give to her friend.
Iya agrees as long as Masha doesn’t desert her during conception. So, as Iya sleeps with a sympathetic doctor, hating every minute, Masha lies next to her, squeezed between Iya and the wall. Soon after, Iya misses a period, causing Masha’s face to show both concern for her friend and delight at the pregnancy. But when Iya finds out it was a phantom, she is devastated. Does she really have to go through that rigmarole again?
Somewhere along the way, Masha acquires a rat-faced boyfriend called Sasha. About the only thing that Sasha has going for him is that his parents are Nomenklatura in The Party. He introduces her to them, telling them that she is the woman he is planning to marry. After listening to Masha talk for a bit, they decide that that’s not going to happen.
Bohnenstange did well at Cannes and has been generally lauded by the critics, which might make you think that I’d take against it. And you know what? You’d be absolutely right. I’m no enemy of bleak films – some of my favourite films are desperately depressing – but I just never really go the point of all this miserabalism. What point is director Kantemir Balagov trying to prove?
For a start, the film is teeth-pullingly slow. It’s not just that not much happens, it’s that it takes an age for these things not to happen. There are … all sorts of … meaningful … pauses, which have you wishing that you were watching it on video so you could put it onto fast forward. And the film is nearly 2½ bloody hours! We don’t all have the time for this sort of thing.
Secondly, the characters, particularly the female ones, do not seem to have any sort of agency. This is most obviously the case with Iya. She is traumatized and socially awkward. Of course she finds it difficult to say things, and is not going to drive much action. Although this is an explanation, it’s not an excuse. If you want to make a film about shy people not doing much at all, then that’s your right. Just don’t expect me to buy a ticket to go and see it.
I would also argue that even Masha has very little agency. Sure, she is more sexually confident. Yes, she appears to be pushing Iya into doing things, but I never see her breaking from any social conventions. Masha improves herself by doing what is expected of her under the prevailing rules. And she never really manages to improve herself, because the rules are stacked against her.
Now I am well aware that what I’ve just described – the futile attempts of working class people to be accepted in a world which does not value them – could be made into a very interesting film. And it seems that for some people, Bohnenstange is this film. But I could not convince my brain that this was anything more than turgid meanderings which were not going anywhere and had nothing profound to tell us.
It is not that the film is fully without hope, nor that I need a film to show any rays of light. There is a moment, at the end, where there is a glimmer of possibility. Maybe Iya and Masha will get out of their desperate situation. And maybe they won’t. But do you know what? By this stage, I had lost all interest either way. I appreciate that some critics saw it differently, but then again, I’m not some critics.