Beanpole ★★★½


There is a scene near the beginning of Beanpole that is emblematic of how bleak it is. A group of injured soldiers recuperating in a hospital in Leningrad (St Petersburg) right after the Second World War (and its’ long, punishing siege by the Nazis) ask a young child to do an impression of a dog. Upon the boy’s confusion, one of the soldier exclaims “Where would he have seen a dog? They’ve all been eaten.” However the cinematography uses and accentuates bright colours (especially reds and greens) with the effect that the almost unremitting bleakness is leavened.

Beanpole is essentially a film about severe trauma and loss, about learning to live in a totally new world with new rules, the old ones having been obliterated, and therefore about learning to live with having one’s previous lives washed away, and the lasting wounds, both physical and mental left by war.

Iya (Miroshnichenko), is a severely traumatised young nurse and former soldier, working in the abovementioned hospital. Nicknamed ‘Beanpole’ for her unusual height, she often suffers paralysing fits that cause her to go into a catatonic state, losing control over her limbs and voice. Iya’s fragile psychological state is compounded when her former comrade Masha (Perelygina, stunning) returns home from war, having previously left her young son Pashka in Iya’s care. There’s a clear contrast between the two from the moment we see them together, but in the opposite way than in the way than one would expect. Despite Iya’s commanding stature it is in fact Masha, with her commanding nature who imposes herself on the relationship. Both attempt to work through their trauma in different ways: Iya retreats more and more into herself and continues to follow commands almost robotically as she seeks to repay an emotional debt to Masha, who is quite aggressive in how she pursues others and uses them to help heal herself and regain at least some semblance of normalcy. Eventually, this drives the two into conflict. There is an obvious lesbian undercurrent to their relationship, which almost fully comes to the fore in one of the many uncomfortable scenes that the film features. And it is this conflict that interestingly comes to head in a struggle for control over Iya’s body.

There is ample opportunity here for events to be deeply affecting and moving, but Balagov’s odd choice of presenting everything, from infanticide to trying on new dresses, with the same matter-of-fact and rather flat manner and tone, robs the film of a lot of its’ potential effect (to say nothing of the danger than any viewer not paying full attention to the goings-on throughout is likely to miss some pretty important and even shocking events).

My ranked list of 2019 films

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