Director: Kantemir Balagov
Stars: Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilia Perelygina, Andrey Bykov
A pretty young woman, Masha (Vasilia Perelygina), is fitted for a green dress with a floral pattern. She is giddy with excitement over the prospect of the thing, and in a moment of unbridled delight asks, “Can I twirl in it?” This might’ve been the moment that broke me, but the scene continues. Masha does twirl in the dress, her dark eyes lit up. And then it is as though she can’t stop herself, as though taken by a malady. She has to wrench herself out of the thing and usher the seamstress – and the dress – out of the room as exhaustion overwhelms her. The flood of emotion is too much.
Beanpole is pitted with such moments, but this one stands out because of the light that shines in Masha’s eyes. Joy is conspicuous in its absence here. We’re in Leningrad in 1945. The war is barely over and the city and it’s people are hurting. Everyone, it seems, wears scars on their faces. Wounds from the fighting, yes, but also emblematic of a spiritually crushed populous, half-starved and with little optimism for better.
Iya Sergueeva (Viktoria Miroshickenko) is a nurse nicknamed ‘Beanpole’ for her height. She towers over the other women as they tend to the sick and disabled, often as not providing the little comfort they can to ease a passing. Iya herself suffers from post-concussion syndrome, meaning that she regularly lapses into catanonia. It is during one of these spells that she inadvertently suffocates the son of her dear friend Masha, imminently due to return home from the front herself. Iya can’t keep up the pretense long, and in another of the story’s devastatingly intimate scenes, admits her guilt to her friend saying, “You can blame me with this.”
Denial is a prominent theme throughout Beanpole, fittingly so for a story that takes place in an environment characterised by wounded pride and unspoken defeat. The time is very specific and you can feel the sense of a nation reeling, trying to take a breath so it can find a new footing. Emotions between these characters are equally wrought and complex. There’s intense love between Iya and Masha, but it is also knotted up in resentment. Masha wants another child, but countless abortions and the caesarean she went through to have Pashka have left her infertile. Wielding grief as a weapon, she looks to Iya to play surrogate, to replace the child she let die.
If Beanpole sounds gruelling, dark and depressing as hell, that’s actually about right, though one can’t downplay the brilliance that shines through also. Kantemir Balagov’s film is like an exposed nerve; incredibly raw. But there’s a searing boldness in it, too. Not least for the evident devotion between Masha and Iya; a political stare-down in light of Russia’s continuing hostility toward homosexuality.
Balagov’s way with stark imagery is also beguiling. The flex in a person’s throat. A boy sat in a bath like a frog. A suitcase potent with death. Hunched shoulders by candlelight. So much distressed wallpaper. Not to mention the strictly adhered to colour palette. Beanpole comes to us in autumnal shades of green and bronze, like a combination of algae and rust. As though it has been dredged up from deep down, underwater. There again comes the sense of repression and of discovery.
While further machinations of the story veer us into territory both disturbing and perverse, there are also moments of extreme tenderness that feel wholly original. On the orders of her superior, Nikolay Ivanovich (Andrey Bykov), Iya administers a lethal injection to a patient to end his suffering. Having done so, she blows smoke from a cigarette into his open mouth so that he might know that sensation one last time. Meanwhile, the final scene – which I daren’t spoil – is as fragile as anything else here, yet with a warmth and optimism that makes so much of the pained journey worth the endurance. Leningrad may be in ruins – and it’s people stooped, floundering for direction – but with his finale Balagov points toward the potential for better. The spirit to strive.
There’s a lot of quietude in Beanpole. Pregnant silences, awkward and spacious. It has the effect of making it’s running time feel stretched out. Longer than it is. This 137 minute feature feels like an epic. By the time it’s done you feel you’ve lived within it. Endured, too. That’s a testament to the powerful level of artistry here. From both cast and crew. It may not be a film you have the emotional capacity to revisit with any regularity, but overlooking it entirely would be a mistake. One of the year’s best.