Published Oct 08, 2019The impact of war on women is rarely in the spotlight, even less so without a connection to a man, but in Beanpole, writer and director Kantemir Balagov presents the complicated inner and outer lives of the Soviet women who fought in World War II, inspired in part by The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich.
In the autumn following the war, Iya, nicknamed Beanpole (newcomer Viktoria Miroshnichenko) because of her height, is an awkward, naive, but gentle young woman who works at the local hospital in Leningrad, taking care of not only wounded soldiers, but also her best friend Masha's (Vasilisa Perelygina, also in her debut) toddler son while she is still in combat. Iya suffers from post-concussion syndrome from when she was an anti-aircraft gunner, and now periodically freezes, an injury everyone around her is accustomed to, because in the context of this world, it's mild at best and seemingly manageable. When the women reunite, a tragedy sets in motion a series of events that pulls them together and apart.
Here, everyone pays the price of war without end into the future, and every happy moment comes at a cost: connection is interrupted by physical trauma, sex turns violent, celebrations sour and a little fun can become life threatening. Even as nurses bringing comfort to the ailing soldiers, they must also be the harbingers of death when they cannot remove the suffering. Yet the desire to live and create life anew is strong, and no one shows a bigger zest for it than Masha and her desire to have a baby when she comes back from war. She is fuelled by a deep need for human connection and physical touch, which is so important to the film.
Claustrophobia is made evident by the many close-ups in the tight quarters of the Soviet communal apartments, where the camera has nowhere to go. Instead of intimacy, we feel everyone's alienation, particularly Iya's (in Russian, "Beanpole" is not necessarily a nice nickname, as it implies the person is not just tall, but dull-witted). There is no sense of community, but something more akin to disparate rubble forced together in a city rebuilding after years of a devastating military blockade. Its citizens are reduced to being battered animals learning how to be human again (early on, one of the soldiers quips that all the dogs in the city have been eaten).
The war had made all activities a means to an end in some way, and Masha and Iya must carry the burden of learning to live in a world where they rebuild society as both literal and figurative mothers and soldiers. There is little room or time for their pain, which explodes in moments of contradiction before deflating back into dormancy. The intense dynamic between the women is equal parts co-dependent, love-ridden and cruel, with power dynamics weighed down by guilt, but also a great care. And despite the severity of their circumstances, there is much love, particularly through Iya who the viewer grows protective of throughout the course of the film.
The film's frames are washed in a yellow tint, with greens and reds bursting out of historic details that become storytelling devices in themselves. In Beanpole's world, in 1945, happiness is perilous, but feelings of "emptiness" and "meaninglessness" cannot contain the flashes of desperate hope its women exude to move past the trauma of war.