dir: Kantemir Balagov
Beanpole is a fairly amazing movie, of which I knew nothing before watching, and of which I could not predict anything as it was happening. A lot of contemporary Russian war movies tend to be fairly nationalistic, so this has nothing to do with that idea. It’s actually about a complex relationship between two female survivors of World War II. It’s not about beans, or poles, or poles with beans on them, or tall people in general. It’s about one tall girl, like a Russian Brienne of Tarth, just taller and more fragile.
Set in Leningrad just after the end of the war, Beanpole refers to the tall protagonist, so tall that she looms over almost everyone else, male or female, on the street, on the tram or at the hospital where she works. She has an actual name, being Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), but more often than not she’s referred to by her “affectionate” nickname. She hunches over a lot, and her eyes are already haunted. She survived the siege of Leningrad, so she must have seen some shit.
She not only survived the war, but fought in the anti-aircraft division, where she received a head wound, which occasionally results in her having a kind of seizure. Not like narcolepsy, where she would collapse, limp like a marionette with cut strings; she freezes in place, unseeing, unhearing, rigidly insensate until it passes.
The hospital where she works looks to be mostly for the soldiers wounded in the war, many of whom are missing limbs or worse. Many seemingly have no hope of recovering, but aren’t going to immediately die of anything either). The head doctor, who looks suspiciously like a Russian version of Jeremy Irons (Andrey Bykov), pulls her aside at one point and pointedly tells her he needs her help with something.
It’s not what you think it is; it’s far worse.
So, not only does she have a harsh job, a worrying condition, and the kind of Soviet impoverished life of starvation we would come to expect from the “winners” of the great war against the Germans, she also comes home to a little boy, Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), who must have been born during the war. Can you imagine anything more terrifying? It puts the children born during this strange pandemic / apocalypse of 2020 seem like blessed lucky angels in comparison.
Pashka is not a strong or healthy child, but he does all right. When Iya can’t have the boy babysat like usual, she has to bring him to work at the hospital, to the delight of the soldiers. They try to entertain the boy by imitating animals. Problem is, the siege of Leningrad is famous for more than just the brutality of the Germans or the resilience of the Russians; it is famous for killing most of the city’s denizens through starvation. How could Pashka have heard or seen any of the animals the soldiers imitate, when everything that was edible was eaten before he probably drew his first breath? Dogs, cats, rats – the only thing they didn’t eat was probably tofu.
The thing is…the thing is, something terrible happens, in a film where you expect terrible things to happen, and it’s a pretty terrible, unfortunate tragedy.
And then Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) turns up at Iya’s door, excited to see her Beanpole, but even more excited to see her son. See, up until this moment, we thought Pashka was Iya’s / Beanpole’s son. It turns out the only mother the boy has known was not his mother, and she was looking after him until his mother could return from the front where she was fighting the Germans(!) I sometimes forget that female soldiers fought on the Russian side, but this film is very much a reminder of that.
Masha wants to see her son, but Iya doesn’t have the heart or the courage to tell her that he is gone, and does everything she can to delay the inevitable (which isn’t a lot, beyond rolling around or avoiding eye contact or direct questions).
It’s hard to describe how surprising this is, how much it changes the dynamics of the film. When Masha finally founds out Pashka’s fate, she demands that the two women go out drinking.
It’s… not to celebrate Pashka’s death; it’s because Masha already has some dark plan in mind. They go to a place they think would be open, but it’s closed, and two jerks they were accosted by on the way in a car, now become more interesting, at least to Masha. The two young jerks follow a “divide and conquer” policy, thinking that offering a small amount of chocolate or booze will get them very far in the gratitude stakes, but Masha’s not interested in the food or booze – she’s down for whatever already, and enthusiastically ‘engages’ with the very dopey Sasha (Igor Shirikov) in the back of the car. We think “maybe she’s trying to replace the child she lost?” or maybe she wants to feel wanted. It’s hard to know, and, as you would expect, it’s neither romantic not sexy.
And when Iya returns from wherever she went with the other guy, she drags Sasha off of Masha and out of the car and beats the shit out of him, the other guy turning up later mumbling “She broke my arm”, almost with wonder in his voice. The two morons, bruised broken and contused, are somehow proud of each other.
It’s not something I want to talk about, but it’s impossible to talk about the flick without mentioning the approach of the story to two key things, the first being sex, and the second being colour.
Let’s just say that Iya and Masha feel very different about that particular past time, though we get the impression in both instances it was shaped by their experiences of the war. Iya loathes the idea of what passes for heterosexual sex for depressing reasons we can infer from traumas inflicted by the war, whether by Russian or German soldiers, but Masha not only celebrates it, she very much enjoys its usage both as a weapon and as a way of getting what she wants, which amounts to almost the same thing. Sasha keeps coming around, with a suspicious amount of food all the time, hoping for more of the same with Masha, but Iya demands his absence, wanting it only to be the two women together alone perhaps forever.
But Masha has already, early on, given Iya her ultimatum, for reasons I won’t spoil: Iya owes Masha a baby, so Iya will deliver to Masha a baby, and Masha is too worn down by her war experiences perhaps, or too traumatised by losing Pashka to care how she gets her way. And Iya, who only seems to care about Masha in this whole world, is put in the terrible position of having to do something she flat out hates in order to keep Masha happy.
It leads to extraordinary blackmail to do with Iya’s “special” work at the hospital, and threatening to destroy other people alongside Iya in order to get what she demands, and all the while Masha has this grin which doesn’t show that she thinks life is funny, but that she is owed by this world for having endured what she has endured. And that feeling of entitlement can lead someone to do terrible fucking things to the people they claim to love.
I mentioned the use of colour early, and it’s quite intriguing. I couldn’t exactly work out what they were trying to say or illuminate with the colour when I first watched the flick last night, but I knew they were trying to say something. It was just too obvious. Sasha and Masha, laughing, try to paint the decaying, appalling apartment the two girls live in green, but they do a very half-arsed job, like, not even trying to be consistent or even to paint in straight lines. The green is meant to cover, to obscure the awful flesh-coloured walls that are falling apart, but also come up hard against the deep reds all over the place, both on the walls and the clothing the women occasionally wear to make a point. A dressmaker who lives in the same building demands Masha be a fit model for the dress she’s working on (as in, to be the dressmaker’s mannequin), and it is of the brightest green, a colour that excites both girls so much, Masha literally demands to be allowed to twirl in it.
Green = life? Red = wounds, trauma, passion? Masha twirls and laughs at first, but progressively gets less joy with each spin, eventually overwhelmed with despair.
A different occasion sees Iya seeming to force her affections upon Masha, and they (either intentionally or accidentally) smear green paint upon each other, in a very awkward and destructive scene, that then flips, as Iya starts having one of her catatonic episodes, and Masha angrily inflicts her “affections” onto Iya.
Sasha, a clueless and stupid boy with ears that stick out a lot, is still, even at this late stage of the film, still smitten with Masha, and insists that she come out to the family home to meet his parents. The family home turns out to be a massive mansion, and Sasha’s parents seem not to be very much like him. They behold Masha with shock, and distaste, more than anything else, and that leads, as we all know, to vicious catfights.
What follows, during a lunch where only the parents are eating despite their feints at hospitality, is one of the most illuminating (in terms of Masha’s actual history and thinking) and caustic arguments I’ve ever scene in a film, and that includes the Michelle Yeoh character in Crazy Rich Asians verbally vivisecting the horrified main character calmly and quietly but so thoroughly that you’re amazed it didn’t end up being an autopsy as well.
Sasha’s mother guesses that Masha must be an amoral chancer, and must have been a camp follower in the war, rather than the noble patriot that she claims, and Masha leans into it, describing just how ruthless and open for business she had to be in order to survive at the front, but somehow owns it, embraces it with open arms, and turns it back on the mother, as if to indicate how much stronger Masha is than her, because the person posing the offensive questions would not have survived in such circumstances. The mother keeps sniping, stabbing, flaying, and Masha embraces it even more, using honesty where others would dissemble or deflect, absorbing it, and rising above.
When the mother fails to tear down Masha’s towering sense of self, she has to resort to her plan b, and tear down her son, in order to prevent the continuation of this union. Throughout, Masha never overstates anything. She repeats twice that Sasha loves her a lot. Twice. But she never pretends that she feels anything similar. What started as an open attack transforms into a strange negotiation, but the mother’s work seems done when Sasha himself storms off, offended that he’s not as much of a prize pig as he’d hoped.
We are left with what looks like two things finally: that most Russian of deaths as established by Anna Karenina, foreshadowed as it is by references made to some poor bastard throwing themselves onto the tracks in front of the Leningrad tram, and a final, ambiguous ending, which, after the relief felt that things didn’t go the way we thought they did, leaves us not completely sure what the future holds for anyone. It’s an ending, but not a definitive one. How do you end a story in a definitive fashion, which begins after the war, for which there’s no set path? How can people as traumatised as the survivors of the war, living in the “heyday” of the Soviet Empire, expect anything close to a happy ending?
Well, this is a Russian film, about Russian people. Their cinema is quite often the grimmest and bleakest on the planet, but this film, even dealing with what it’s dealing with, manages to not be that at all. Even if some sad things happen, and some harsh words are said, and some people are forced into circumstances they would rather not be in, it somehow ends up being oddly hopeful. I have no idea what would have happened to these characters after these events, but I can hope they found…something?
The two main performances are sublime, and they’re from non-professional actors. Both these ladies put in incredible work with these difficult characters – difficult in that they’re complex and not pandering for our favour, neither being a hero or a villain, neither entirely to blame nor blameless in their complex, manipulative dance with each other.
It’s an amazingly well put together film, if you can stomach the idea of it. The performances especially, but the set design, the feeling of post-war Leningrad, somehow hopeful but not too much, the look of this benighted place, the extinguishment of hope, but the hope of something else not too completely far out of one’s grasp. Many of the other characters have plights and stories of their own, but they’re played not for cheap emotion, but to show the practicalities of what a post-war existence would be like, where emotional considerations play the most distance second fiddle to daily necessities, where there is little room for sentiment beyond raw need.
Beanpole is a great Russian film that doesn’t necessarily make you want to slit your wrists, which is a fairly strong recommendation, in an arse-backwards kind of way.
8 times there are no vodka or toilet paper jokes in this flick at all out of 10
“You wouldn’t have been worth a bread crust at the Front.” – that’s pretty harsh - Beanpole