Is ‘Beanpole’ the First Great Movie of 2020?
The Russian WWII-era drama tells the story of two women soldiers struggling to manage the lingering effects of war. And it is stunning, writes Cassie da Costa.
Many critics are lauding Beanpole, the latest film by 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov, as the first great movie of the year. It’s hard to make sense of superlatives that are based on promptness—it’s February, and January is widely understood to be the worst month for movie releases. Still, Beanpole is a curious, demented, and attentive film. It takes the kind of narrative and artistic risks uncommon amongst World War II dramas, and in the process, develops a both moral and radical vision of what healing means when you’ve truly suffered. It also makes decisive omissions—you’re not allowed deep into the psyches of the film’s protagonists, nor are you given clear explanations for their actions or situations. It’s an elliptical choice that often fails in films that depend on psychology, but ultimately struck me as an incredible refusal. Beanpole is not a film about interpretation or understanding, but survival.
The film takes place in 1945, right at the end of the war, in Leningrad, where the titular character (Dylda in Russian), whose name is really Iya, works as a nurse at a hospital filled with ailing and perishing soldiers. Despite the gloom, she’s a patient and cheerful nurse, and the soldiers seem to be in relatively good spirits, considering. Her boss, a sensitive yet gruff doctor, gives her the food ration of a perished soldier because at night, she returns to an adorable yet underweight little boy named Paschka. But everything sweet in this movie is also fragile, askew, and potentially fleeting. Actress Viktoria Miroshnichenko, who is indeed very tall and thin like a beanpole, plays Iya with the awkward grace and determination of an injured dancer. Iya served in the war as an anti-aircraft gunner, but was discharged when she began suffering from post-concussion syndrome; she has long, paralytic episodes in which her body goes stiff and her throat strains for air.
This condition creates the film’s central predicament, which I won’t spoil for you here. When Iya’s friend from the war, Masha, returns from the front wounded and infertile, the idea that either woman will lead a “peaceful life” after war, as authority figures constantly encourage, seems absurdly wishful. The facetious yet troubled Masha, played with a profound physicality by Vasilisa Perelygina, knows the fight is not over; she will not rest until she has birthed her own sense of healing into the obviously shattered society she has returned to. Her refusal is radical because it is morally steadfast—she declines, even in the aftermath of violent change and the midst of imposed, superficial calm, to do away with the vision of life she’s always held.
In the process, Masha does terrible things to Iya, and Iya—who is as physically strong as she is emotionally fragile—to Masha. But this is not the darkly competitive intellectual friendship of My Brilliant Friend, for example. Beanpole, which is inspired by real accounts by female soldiers in Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich’s book The Unwomanly Face of War, is about two women who are not bound to each other in a strictly platonic sense, but reproductively and energetically. In one scene (a small spoiler), Iya kisses Masha while she’s coming down from a manic episode triggered by twirling in a beautiful green dress. At first Masha laughs and accepts, then she starts to break away; disturbingly, Iya won’t let her, and pins her to the ground. Then, suddenly, Iya goes stiff and falls into another episode while lying on top of Masha. Masha laughs, then goes serious—her own breathing is shallow—then kisses Iya aggressively before pushing her body off of hers.
These are two women who, in different ways, aren’t in their right minds. Their violence toward each other (and others) is of their world and circumstances; healing, to each of them, seems to be a method of rewriting this violence into a new name. In that way—though there are no verbose recountings of the war and its effects—Beanpole is also a film about authorship, and why women, in particular, are discouraged from telling of their trauma. When Masha meets the rich parents of a feckless boyfriend she’s taken on out of need and strategy, she seems to make up a more tragic story about her army past to please the boy’s presumptive mother, Lyubov. Instead of a soldier, she’s now, to Lyubov, a former “army wife” or sex worker, who survived by taking on the right boyfriends. The scene is so strange and stale that for a moment, you think that perhaps everything you’ve heard from Masha and Iya up to this point has been a lie—and that now, in this palace with two cold authorities, Masha is finally telling the truth.
Except, of course she isn’t. There is no truth in these authoritative institutions of wealth, war, and peace, and both Masha and Iya know it. That they hold onto each other so viciously and desperately as each other’s only romantic and familial possibility is crucial to the film’s visual expression as well as its ideas. From the brightly colored yet cramped and dingy room Masha and Iya share to the highly saturated primary colors of each scene, there are no easy boundaries between past, present, and future. We are asked, in domestic, public, and professional spheres, to witness Iya and Masha as they hurtle forward.