Steven Sheehan’s review published on Letterboxd:
Kantemir Balagov’s brutally bleak second film, Beanpole, shows us the lives of two women struggling to readjust to life in a devastated Leningrad at the end of World War II. It’s the sort of tough watch that some won’t be able to sit through in its entirety, due to Balagov’s unwillingness to blink and shield his audience from the grim reality of his characters.
Over a million people died during the siege of Leningrad with the conflict lasting a gruelling 872 days. One of the survivors is a young nurse called Iya, who has returned from the frontlines were she fought as a solider and now works in a Leningrad hospital treating wounded Red Army soldiers. Most people playfully call her Beanpole, due to her tall, angular frame and her quiet disposition belies the psychological scars collected during her time fighting the Germans.
The film opens on a close-up of Iya lost in a trance, her mind gripped by the horrific memories of war. Wisely, Balagov doesn’t reveal her internalised trauma and instead leaves us to watch the way these seizures damage her life in the present day. But there is no way you can be prepared for the devastation that she – and we – are subjected to within the first 20 minutes. While playing with a three-year-old boy (who we assume to be her son) at home a tragedy occurs that is almost unbearable to watch. There is only a single cut in the scene and quite how it was executed is one thing, but sitting through it is an ordeal all in itself. The moment is a lot to take in and it takes a while to settle back into the flow of the narrative when Iya comes back home from the hospital.