Directed by 28-year-old Kantemir Balagov, Beanpole is a whirlwind, breathless fever-trip chronicling the lasting effects of war on two soviet women. Set in 1945 Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the film follows Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), who suffers from PTSD, and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) as they stagger to cling onto any agency after the war.
The titular “beanpole” in question is Iya, with pale, ashen hair and prone to fits of seizures. When Masha first arrives from the front, she’s reclaiming her young son, Pashka, from Iya’s care. In contrast to Iya, Masha is headstrong, rigid and unwavering. There’s a sort of exchange that occurs between the two women, one that later blurs the lines between conventional kinship and alternative obsession. Balagov illustrates both women in unfettered honesty, showing their darkness and most intimate hopes and appetites.
Beanpole’s stark plot is arguably enough to shy away moviegoers looking for a cinematic experience that isn’t altogether joyless. Yet Balagov’s precocious third feature still manages to find crevices of beauty within a ruined St. Petersburg. Make no mistake — Beanpole is by no means a glossy, comforting film. The vivid, emotive visuals convey the malaise and bleakness of the time: it is a difficult film that focuses on difficult women. Balagov has a distinctly mature, cinematic voice with the means to shock and jolt audiences into seeing the raw vérité of Iya and Masha’s life postwar. Beanpole invites viewers to look at cinema in extremis — of what kind of people we would become, if we too, were left deserted amidst mangled bodies. It isn’t exactly the kind of film to see on a first date.
Similarly to Alfonso Cuáron’s Roma, postwar Russia comes alive in Beanpole through the set design and cinematography. Absurdly enough, an immense appreciation and adoration for a country in ruins shines through in the delicate city shots. Perhaps Beanpole’s biggest triumph is in its artful elements. Ksenia Sereda’s cinematography comes alive with closeups of the bereft protagonists and a filmic, dreamy colour palette. Paired with Evgueni Galperine’s haunting score, Beanpole’s sense of loss resonates.
While Beanpole is inarguably an example of the Balagov’s precocious command of the medium, it falls short of materializing as a classic in contemporary Russian cinema because it lacks precisely one thing: a silver lining. Aside from the crisp, devastatingly beautiful shots of a St. Petersburg in the ruins of war, which — by the end — become a character of its own, Beanpole provides no comfort in its cold world. It is a film that requires patience, with a folkloric, glacial pacing that is unapologetically arthouse.
The opulence and grandeur for which Tsarist Leningrad was known for is completely unrecognizable. It, like its own people, has taken the blunt of the hit. There is no romanticism, no escape from the rot, and perhaps that speaks exactly to the seriousness of Balagov’s work.
Uncomfortable, suffocating scenes are held for just a few seconds too long, challenging viewers to walk out of the cinema altogether. One such sequence is only five minutes into Beanpole, where young Pashka, standing dead-centre amidst a room of physically and mentally rehabilitating soldiers, is asked to bark like a dog. But Pashka doesn’t know what a dog is. Because they’ve all been eaten in the war. The next five minutes feature soldiers emoting a bark while laughing jeeringly as Pashka stands frozen.
Many directors twice Balagov’s age could only dream of making a film this unwavering and unsettling — so explicit in its understanding and exploration of extreme female pain. And that is exactly the point of Beanpole: to show women who are flawed, broken and satiated to no return (something absent from contemporary storytelling as we know it). Is the world ready to be slapped face-first by Beanpole? Let’s hope so.
Monique Vigneault (@Monique_ZV) is a freelance journalist and film writer currently studying journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto. She divides her time between Toronto and Moscow.