Before we even see the opening shot of the immensely great Beanpole, we hear the unnerving sound of someone struggling to breathe — a gasping, clicking intake of air that might literally be a death rattle. That someone is Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), the unusually tall and pale title character, and when director Kantemir Balagov finally cuts to her, she’s entirely frozen in place, at the mercy of a neurological condition that frequently seizes control of her body. At the Leningrad hospital where few patients are ever healed, doctors seemingly only deliver bad news, and where Iya’s worked ever since getting removed from the front lines in WWII for her PTSD, her episodes have become so common that the other nurses in the background barely pay any attention to her. She’ll snap out of it soon.
The war has just ended, but an estimated eight-hundred-thousand civilians died in the siege of Leningrad, and the trauma of those who have survived, including many who are returning from the front lines and populate the aforementioned hospital, permeates the film’s atmosphere and mood like a thick fog. But the suffering is just beginning for Iya: In a horrifying early scene, she has one of her episodes while play-wrestling with Pashka (Timofey Glaszkov), a toddler under her care that many believe to actually be her child, and the weight of her on top of him suffocates him to death — a scene that Balagov plays for maximum devastation, locking his camera on a tight close-up of the kid’s hand, flexing and releasing, then going still. To witness this new, innocent life extinguished is bleak enough on its face, but what’s even bleaker is the suggestion that the place itself is infertile. Not a single child can be seen around.
As you might already can tell, it’s fair to say that Beanpole can be a pretty tough-going affair, coming in the tradition of other great grim Russian war films like Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood or Elim Klimov’s Come and See. Yet Balagov, a crazy talented twenty-eight-year-old filmmaker making his second feature, doesn’t revel in the tragedy or allow it to be the film’s prevailing sentiment, even as circumstances keep pushing the characters in that direction. He’s telling a story about friendship, clinging to two women who have been through hell together and whose complicated entanglement, twisted dynamics, and muzzling repression hints at a brighter future they cannot yet see.
And we can’t see it yet, either. Iya’s best friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) is Pashka’s actual mother, and she’s no longer biologically capable of having another, due to circumstances Balagov holds off on revealing. When Masha returns from the front lines to reunite with her son and his caretaker, Iya is so shamed by what happened that she nods along blankly as Masha assumes the boy is out playing with a neighbor. The truth shocks Masha into a drastic course of action: She wants to find another man right away and she wants to figure out how to have another baby boy to replace Pashka. It isn’t hard for the attractive, sexually aggressive Masha to pick up a boyfriend, especially since she isn’t particularly choosy about it. In a drunken night on the town, she literally drags the woefully inexperienced Sasha (Igor Shirokov) into the back seat of a car and almost certainly takes his virginity with her. Her plan for replacing Pashka proves much more difficult and emotionally trying, but she feels like Iya owes her some assistance and they execute a drastic solution that’s still not guaranteed to get results.
Beanpole unfolds at a deliberate pace, soaking in the day-to-day atmosphere at a hospital where tragedy and trauma have recalibrated human behavior to the point where it’s only half-recognizable. Balagov spins his characters individual pathologies into a diagnosis of the psychological effects of WWII not just on them, but on Russia in general, conveying the collective horror of a nation forced to do terrible things to survive through the story of two friends asking the impossible of each other. From the scene where Masha finds out about what happened to her son to the film’s bleak finale, the underlining, larger political points come smartly done so in service of character development rather than pure teaching. In fact, Beanpole keeps its set pieces muted and interpersonal throughout, revealing the sadomasochistic underpinnings of Iya and Masha’s friendship through dialogue filmed in intimate close-up. Loaded with the weight of everything said and unsaid that’s passed between these characters, Masha gently stroking Iya’s hair lands like a punch in the face.
In Beanpole, mangled bodies and piles of rubble fuse together in a tableau of devastation. Through the astonishing production design from Sergei Ivanov, the worn-down architecture of the city formerly known as St. Petersburg, as well as the odd beauty in the emaciated frames and contorted limbs of the patients in Iya’s care, Balagov’s overall eye for imagery is striking as hell. There’s a strong reason he won the Un Certain Regard Best Director Award last year at Cannes, and the way he captures these damaged people and places brings to mind the work of the great Russian painter Ilya Repin. Instead though, Balagov and Ivanov bring an unique green-orange color palette all their own, lending the film’s subjects a quiet dignity and saturated world where hope can seem far away.
But, maybe most importantly are our leading women. In their acting debuts, Miroshnichenko and Perelygina are both incredibly, thoroughly persuasive at every turn. Though Perelygina gives the rangier performance, because she’s called to seduce and manipulate, she as well shows vulnerability in more private moments. From the bond between Iya and Masha, Balagov draws a warmth that becomes the film’s prevailing, redeeming sentiment, like a wall against the darkness that threatens to swallow them whole. As difficult as Beanpole can be to watch, it quietly accumulates kindnesses alongside the crueler twists of fate, escaping what would be an unfair label of “misery porn.” All because the questions it’s asking are much more complicated, and more cutting, than what usually comes with such a label. All bringing to mind one of the great Roger Ebert sayings: “All bad movies are depressing, and no good movies are.” Bleak brutality and peeping tenderness come with Beanpole: A film of a slow soul-crushing weight of anguish, repression, and despair that tracks the vast crumbling recovery of war. It’s wholly and utterly breathtaking.