“Masterful direction paired with spontaneous moments of brilliant vulnerability lead to a mortal examination of the female experience that never feels cloying or objectifying.”
Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is a nurse who suffers from post-concussion syndrome and PTSD caused by her time as a soldier at the front lines of the war. This results in fits of paralysis; her pale body freezes and her voice becomes nothing more than a wispy gasp. Iya’s immense height has earned her the nickname “Beanpole,” yet she is demure, patient, and kind. Her joy in life and the joy of the hospital community as a whole, a place desperately in need of uplifting, is three-year-old Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), the only child in the film. This is post-World War II Leningrad, a place and time not exactly remembered for its vitality, and people are just beginning to brush off the rubble and rebuild their lives. The film is characterized by sweet moments with bitter undertones. For example, Pashka plays charades with a group of former soldiers, a charming moment which evokes feelings of hope and anticipation for the future. The men cheer timid Pashka on, encouraging him to act like a dog. “Where would he have seen a dog?” one man asks the others; “all the dogs have been eaten”.
Beanpole is soon joined by her best friend and other former soldier Masha (Vasilisa Perelygenia), who is unable to have children but has some serious baby fever, to say the least. From here, the film shifts into something different altogether, asking more questions about life and loss than it answers. The pace becomes slower with longer takes, highlighting the anguish of two women in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy.
Undoubtedly, Beanpole is one of the most visually striking films of the year due to its rich color palette, always contrasting gorgeous greens, yellows, and reds. It is clear that cinematographer Kseniya Sereda and production designer Sergey Ivanov planned out every detail of every frame: everything from the striking green of the walls to the details of every costume choice. Originally, director Kantemir Balagov planned on shooting the film in black and white due to the time period, but he intentionally chose to use color to express the new confidence people felt after the end of the war, as well as the complex, closely knit, yet often clashing personalities of the two women. Masha is fiery red, with a devil-may-care attitude, a dark past and scars to match, while Beanpole is more of a passive calm green who follows the rules. Their relationship often blurs lines between platonic and romantic, nurturing and jealous. There is definitely lesbian subtext involved, but Balagov is more interested in exploring the intricacies of human connection than making a social statement about a particular identity; of course, those two ideas are intertwined and impossible to ignore.
Another notable decision on Balagov’s part is the casting of only non-actors; none of the major players had professionally acted before, but Balagov knew he wanted Miroshnichenko for the titular role from the first day of casting. Masterful direction paired with spontaneous moments of brilliant vulnerability lead to a mortal examination of the female experience that never feels cloying or objectifying.
Winner of the FIPRESCI and Best Director prizes at the Un Certain Regard category at the Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Russian entry for Best International Film at the Academy Awards, it is tough to believe that Balagov is a 27-year-old with a Hakuna Matata tattoo. He was inspired to make Beanpole after discovering Svetlana Alexievich’s book “The Unwomanly Face of War,” seeing a previously untapped side of war stories that needed to come into the light.
Dir: Kantemir Balagov
Prod: Ellen Rodnianski, Alexander Rodnyansky
Cast: Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, Igor Shirokov, Konstantin Balakirev, Timofey Glazkov
Release date: 2019
Available at: US Cinemas (January 29th 2020)