Beanpole ★★★★½

Beanpole is a subtly devastating view of post-World War II Leningrad, told through the perspectives of two young women serving in a hospital for returned soldiers. The physical and psychological traumas of the patients are matched by those carried by the doctors and nurses who care for them. No one has been spared from loss, and everyone continues to suffer badly the effects of the war. Yet despite all the suffering, there are signs of resilience and even humanity, and a sense that life, somehow, will go on for most of those that remain. The two lead characters - Iya, the beanpole of the title, and Masha, her friend recently returned from the front - play out a profoundly codependent relationship. They are tender towards one another, but they are also bound together by guilt and manipulation. The film slowly reveals their surprising backstory and leads us deep into an ethical nightmare. 

It’s a film that is concerned with trauma, but it also has a lot to say about the process of reproduction and renewal following loss. It’s a focus that is told dramatically through the story of the two women, but also symbolically in the context of the shattered society that is seeking to re-emerge from the war, with its survivors caught at a fragile crossroads.

Beanpole’s striking art design is richly coloured in greens and reds, and the sets are bathed in an often golden light; and yet despite this warmth, there’s a late autumn chill that hangs over the film. Walls in the hospital are being painted in green like a fresh start over the cracks; and a green dress is borrowed to help Masha initiate a new relationship; but the painful shades of red are also present. This tension between trauma and renewal plays out in the story through incidents that compare love and cruelty, hope and pain, and even life and death. But despite the dramatic nature of the plot, the film is unusually restrained in its telling. There is no music, beside an occasional, high pitched, numbing drone that accompanies Iya’s seizures, and the intense and sustained quietness acts to draw you in close, establishing a sense of intimacy that is further enhanced by the film’s measured pace. There are lengthy sequences, with minimal dialogue, during which much of what is conveyed is implied by expression rather than explicitly stated. In minimising the dynamics, it makes for a difficult watch, but if you are able yield to its austere language, then it becomes deeply rewarding. 

This is a richly thematic and beautifully realised film. If you are able to sink into it, it will return the favour. It has really stayed with me, and after a rewatch continues to grow in my estimation. 

In my Top 200 Films list.

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