Her name is Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), but most folks call her “Beanpole.” It’s not hard to see why — tall, willowy, and blessed with hair the color of fine straw, this lanky Russian does indeed resemble a long, sprouting plant. But it’s a term people use affectionately when they talk of her, and in Leningrad circa “the first autumn after the war,” affection is scarce. Working as a nurse, Iya tends to soldiers who’ve survived sieges and shellings, who’ve lost limbs and sometimes the will to live. She, too, has an affliction: a tendency to freeze up unexpectedly, the clicking sound in her throat being the only indication that she’s still functioning. But the men, and the hospital’s head doctor (Andrey Bykov), like Iya. In her off hours, she goes about raising a young boy (Igor Shirokov) in a city slowly putting itself back together.
Beanpole, the second feature from 29-year-old filmmaker Kantemir Balagov (Closeness), immediately gives you a quick sketch of this woman, her strengths and weaknesses, how compassionate and wide-eyed and open-hearted she is. Being a Russian movie set during a particularly devastating moment of the country’s history, it also introduces a major tragedy before the first act is barely out the door. That’s roughly the point that the second protagonist, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), enters the picture as well. Like Iya, she was an anti-aircraft gunner who served on the Western front. Masha was there when Beanpole got the concussion that started causing these catatonic episodes; she has her own scars as well. And as details of the bond between these two begin to get filled in, we find out that there is a debt that’s now owed, and that Masha has concocted a way in which it will be paid in full.
A minor sensation of the Un Certain Regard sidebar at last year’s Cannes Film Festival — Balagov won the section’s Best Directing Award — this brutal and brilliant period piece accomplishes several things all at once. It’s a dual character study, and one that sometimes veers very close to being a bleak, caustic buddy comedy. (Miroshnichenko and Perelygina, both first-time actors, are equally, staggeringly impressive in their roles; a scene in which the latter dresses down a political apparatchik at a dinner table is a study in dead-eyed, controlled rage.) It’s a melodrama about life after wartime, and a portrait of a meticulously recreated Leningrad just starting to lick its wounds. It’s a demonstration of directorial chops that somehow never devolves into a look-mamushka-no-hands display, and a textbook example of how to use handheld camerawork (courtesy of cinematographer Kseniya Sereda) and splashes of red, green, and goldenrod effectively without being garish or grandiloquent.
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And most of all, Beanpole is a take on postwar trauma, post-ceasefire collateral damage, and the process of healing that uniquely prioritizes the female perspective. Balagov and his co-writer, Aleksandr Terekhov, have mentioned the influence of Svetlana Alexievich’s WWII oral history, “The Unwomanly Face of War,” on their screenplay, and the choice to focus more on a gender-specific experience in a combat zone where the bullets have stopped flying is key. Women are left to pick up the pieces in a way that’s different from the maimed and mentally unstable soldiers Beanpole tends to; the appearance of a wife visiting her paralyzed husband in hospice only underlines the gap. Iya and Masha have a strong connection, which at times feels like a deep friendship and other times resembles two drowning people desperately pulling each other down. But you’re always aware of how sustaining this relationship is no matter how sour things get, and how the film neither pulls its punches nor sadistically ladles on extra victimhood in regard to its heroines. They’ve suffered in different ways, yet both have suffered enough — and as an extraordinary, goosebump-inducing final shot suggests, they need each other to survive further down the line. Beanpole has already opened in New York; it starts its national roll-out on February 14th. Attention deserves to be paid.