Beanpole ★★★½

Leningrad. A year after the war. The fighting has ostensibly concluded, but it has engendered a new battle— something longer and darker. An internal wrestle to emerge from the shadow of a finished war: the struggle to overcome the seeds of trauma. Beanpole’s two main women, Iya (nicknamed ‘Beanpole’) and Masha, find themselves mired deep in this bleak effort to move on, to restart, rebuild. From them, around them, and within them, we see the various echoes of the devastating war, the stories and people of weary tragedy.

Yet Beanpole doesn’t put itself forward as a character-piece, nor even as a historical artifact; the central axis is suffering itself. The film focuses on the ramifications of ceaseless struggle in the harsh reality of a recovering city. Reverberations of the war emerge in both the individual level and the national level. Life struggles onward, but time is frozen by the consequences of conflict, physical and mental. We see characters grappling with paralysis, catatonia, and infertility— life-stalling afflictions. And, refracted through this, we then glimpse the city, the nation itself, stalled and uncertain in how it can move forwards.

This unrelenting thematic onslaught, however, is also a detriment to the film’s form. Its mood edges on miserablism, as the narrative and characters are sidelined for suffering itself. This focus obfuscates the emotionality of the film, heaping on the pain and loss, without enough space for us to become truly invested in the characters. Partly this is because the dark situations force the characters to react with unexpected emotional responses. And partly it seems that the film is just as numb* as its characters— probably intentionally so, although I remain torn on how effective that approach may be.

While Iya’s nickname Beanpole refers primarily to her ungainly height and lanky limbs, it just as easily becomes something more metaphorical, relating her to a frail bean-sprout, like some desperate and hopeful sprig of life planted in the coarse grain of postwar soil. The colours present in this image— green of leaf, black of soil, and sappy yellow of stem— then become the consistent palette of the film, realized through its precise cinematography. The yellows are weak, faded, like the patina over an old photograph, suggesting that here light— and hope— are always feeble. The blacks are razor-sharp, persistent shapes of shadow that haunt the screen. They are the constant creeping edge of despair. And the greens are deep, rustic, robust. Commonly, green symbolizes spring and everything that comes with it: new life, rebirth, growth. But here, all these meanings are subverted, or twisted ironically. These… are the greens of darkness.

While tedious and meandering in some parts, Beanpole successfully creates a meticulous and lasting look into the deep challenges of recovering and healing. It lights a candle to reveal the vast darkness in the wake of war.

*As a point of clarity: when I say numb, I don’t quite mean distanced or detached, which can be effective methods of observing something bleak. Instead, the film seems caught somewhere between being internally expressive (with its stylized palette and close handheld camerawork) and closed-off, with its inscrutable characters, and editing that keeps the viewer away from its most emotionally-charged moments, focusing instead on aftermath and after-effects.

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