Russia (2019) Dir. Kantemir Balagov
War causes many losses both on and off the battlefield, but the sacrifices don’t end once the military conflict ceases. Reintegrating into a society rebuilding itself presents another set of struggles for those dealing with the aftermath of their experiences.
In a Leningrad hospital in 1945, shortly after World War II has ended, tall, lanky nurse Ilya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed Beanpole, suffers from temporary blackouts as a result of a head wound suffered during her duty. During a blackout, Ilya accidentally smothers a young boy to death – Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), the son of her best friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), recently returned from the frontline.
Masha gets a job at the hospital with Ilya, where hospital director Dr. Nikolay Ivanovich (Andrey Bykov) is asked by paralysed soldier Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev) to euthanise him. Ivanovich reluctantly agrees but has Ilya perform the actual deed. However, Masha sees this and wanting another child after losing Pashka, blackmails Ilya and Ivanovich to sire a child for her, as she herself is infertile.
Beanpole, as you may have already surmised, is not a light film and not just because of its post-war setting either. Pessimism leaks from every frame that not even bursts of bright primary colours – mostly green – can bring much respite from. It’s a film about damaged people who don’t know how to fix themselves; hardly an uplifting subject but oddly compelling.
Kantemir Balagov presents this story in a slow manner, letting things happen rather than having the plot unfold within the usual three act framework. His narrative style is very much more show than tell, leaving the audience to decipher what he is showing; some of it is obvious, some are ambiguous, bordering on baffling. This posits Balagov as a keen student of symbolism when exploring the inner feelings of his characters.
For example, there is a scene where Masha tries on a dress being made for her and does a twirl; she then continues to twirl, getting faster, more unsteady, and violent until she tears off the dress in anger. Is Masha getting too excited by the dress she couldn’t stop? Or was she punishing herself for being happy? I really don’t know.
Of the two central characters, Masha is the hardest to read. When she learns of Pashka’s death, there are no tears, no hysteria, just a moment of shock then she invites Ilya to go out dancing. Her hooking up with rich boy Sasha (Igor Shirokov) in the back of his car was to make a replacement for Pashka – except Masha knew she was infertile. Psychologically, she may have painted herself into a corner, but we still have the rest of the film to learn why she is this way.
An implied frisson between Ilya and Masha is manifest through Ilya taking a dislike to Sasha, though it is never fully realised. Masha may even love Sasha but her paramount concern is a new baby, and it comes as a shock to the viewer as much as it does Ilya that Masha would resort to such a low tact as blackmail to get what she wants.
The mini-saga involving Pashka that drives the first act is a deft piece of storytelling and misdirection. At no point do we ever suspect he and Ilya are not mother and son, not even the cast. So, when Masha drops the bombshell, we don’t feel angry at being played but marvel at how skilled the deceit was. Now, I know this would usually constitute a spoiler but here, it is germane to the plot moving forward thus vital to the discussion.
Plus it adds more poignancy to the accidental death scene, a horrific, devastating sight to endure, powerful through its simplicity. Balagov is adept at creating unpleasantness without resorting to graphic imagery. Yet the real horror is never spoken or shown on screen, it is in the heads of the soldiers in the hospital; in Masha’s head suppressing the truth; in Ivanovich’s head post-blackmail; in Ilya’s head trying to reconcile her feelings.
Most importantly, it is in Stepan’s head. He chose to end his life because he didn’t want his kids to see him as a paraplegic; his wife had already told them he was dead. Is there a bigger tragedy than loss of hope? How ironic it is the film should end on what can be perceived as a hopeful note? The path to it is sinuous and toxic but for Ilya and Masha, it is the only hope they have.
Referring back to Balagov’s use of symbolism, perhaps this was supposed to represent Russia’s future post-war? It was a messy journey but now they are in a place of getting back on their feet, having freed themselves from their former burdens. Very few post-war films dig deep into the mental discord in exploring the fallout for the badly scarred whilst remaining quietly sympathetic like this one does.
Whether the dreary, silent atmosphere or psychological upset proves unappealing, the lead performances are powerful magnets for the audience. According to IMDb, newcomer Viktoria Miroshnichenko is 5’11; unless the rest of the cast are all tiny, she looks closer to 6’5! Regardless, she can appear quite small at times, such is the sublime meekness she suffuses her role as Ilya.
By way of contrast, Vasilisa Perelygina, also a newcomer, is incendiary in her essaying of Masha, defying her small stature as a woman on the edge who refuses to accept it. One could perhaps liken the dynamic between her brash dominance over the placid Ilya to that of George and Lenny from Of Mice and Men, but with a Sapphic twist and characters that are decidedly more complex.
I say with frankness Beanpole didn’t need to be 138-minutes long, and could have still made a lasting impression if thirty minutes shorter. That said, it is film of great depth as well as density, and so skilfully made it engrosses you rather than you being engrossed with it.