War is hell. And life after war is, too. Most war films concentrate on the effects that the carnage has on men, but this Russian melodrama looks at how the women are scarred, too. Set in Leningrad just after World War II has ended, when the Siege may be over, but the people are still dealing with the hunger and deprivation, Beanpole is a character study of two young women, friends from the battlefield, both trying to make sense of their lives after the war. Iya affectionately known as Beanpole (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) works in a hospital tending the wounded. She has a cute little boy at home that she dotes on. But she is afflicted with a condition caused by an explosion that makes her “freeze” from time to time – staring into space and making tiny clicking sounds until she comes back to life. And it causes her to make a tragic mistake. But then her wartime buddy Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) arrives back from the front, and though it begins as a warm reunion, their relationship takes some very dark turns.
Iya is very tall and blonde and you could easily see her on a catwalk somewhere, but she’s a very shy and reclusive young woman who doesn’t talk much. Masha is just the opposite, short and outgoing and constantly plotting. But despite their differences, the two of them clearly have a deep bond formed during the war. And when Masha arrives Iya is thrilled to see her, but soon Masha is pursuing a rich young man who supplies them with food, which is still in very short supply. Iya is jealous, and there are hints of a lesbian crush, but that’s not what it is about. It’s a deep love formed out of a devastating shared experience. But Masha has some serious mental problems and manipulates a very guilt ridden Iya into doing something that nearly breaks her. It’s a horrifying scene, one of several in the film. Not in a gruesome way, but painful to watch.
Iya’s work is also a torment for her. There are so many men at the hospital who are maimed both physically and psychologically, and one man in particular just wants to be put out of his misery. A scene where he and his wife beg the doctor to kill him is heartbreaking. And when it is revealed that hastening the life-ending is one of Iya’s jobs, one that she wants to stop doing, you feel her utter hopelessness. Life and death are everywhere in this film. And these two wounded young women are holding on for dear life.
Beanpole is definitely not a film for wide audiences. It is gorgeously shot and the two first-time actresses are amazing. The direction and writing are first-rate, but the pacing is sometimes slow and the story rough to watch at times. It’s for the arty crowd. You know who you are and I do highly recommend it to you!
[Mainstream Chick’s take: I agree with everything Arty Chick says in her final paragraph. Beanpole is not a film for wide audiences. It’s the type of film that may be celebrated as a beautiful near-masterpiece in inner arty circles, but for mainstream chicks like myself, it’s overwhelmingly sad and disturbing and grim. Kudos, however, to the film’s 28-year-old director, Kantemir Balagov. I suspect he’s got a bright career ahead of him. I just hope he takes his work into some brighter territory – so wider audiences can potentially appreciate his craft. -hb]