There’s something a bit gynaecological about Beanpole, even beyond its literal narrative of childless women yearning to care for something, to replace the maternal instinct that’s been stripped from them. Director Kantemir Balagov’s vision of Leningrad in 1945 has been rendered infertile by the war, and totally unsuitable for child-rearing ― which makes the film’s surprisingly warm, womblike palette all the more refreshing. Beginning with a disturbing family tragedy and ending on a skewed romantic note between two broken people, this is not the kind of grim subject matter that would typically suit such secluded, glowing domestic spaces.
Viktoria Mironschnichenko is striking as Iya, a naïve trauma-ward nurse with bone-coloured hair and eyelashes that perfectly catch cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s light. Nicknamed ‘Beanpole’ for her stature, Iya literally towers a head above the rest of the cast. Peering down at the traumatised city below her, we get to see from her wide-eyed perspective; hovering above naked women in a bathhouse, bovine commuters getting on the tram for work before dawn. All of these people are looking for healing of some form or another, and their grief manifests itself as PTSD, missing limbs, suicidal ideations, and, in Iya’s case, a tendency to seize up in what she calls “freezing fits”, wherein she is momentarily paralysed, only able to gurgle in anguish. Beanpole’s horrific sound design for these seizures sounds unfakeable, testing our empathy for second-hand anguish to its limits.
One such episode becomes the almost unwatchable catalyst for the film’s main narrative ― we watch as the sole source of light in Iya’s life is snuffed out when she accidentally causes the death of Pashka, a young boy in her care. Then his mother, the wily, domineering Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) ― the object of Iya’s affection ― arrives back in town. She doesn’t seem to grieve for Pashka like Iya does ― instead, she’s determined to pump out another child as soon as possible, as if a new baby can fix the national deficiency in self-esteem. When Iya asks why they don’t just adopt one of the city’s many orphans, Masha replies, “I need a whole child.”
Wholeness and emptiness are central to Beanpole, with many scenes taking place in the soldier’s hospital where men wait around to be claimed by their family members ― seeking to be returned to their place in a comfortable, loving unit that might not exist. A doctor at one point promises, too cheerily, that one patient has “torn stitches ― don’t worry, we’ll patch him up.” Balagov and Aleksandr Terekhov’s screenplay vibrates between pessimism and a survivalist delusion that everything will be okay so long as the old rules are respected. One subplot focuses on a soldier pragmatically accepting that his family would be better off were he euthanised, pushing the limits of the nurses’ roles as ‘sisters of mercy’ ― it’s a distinctly Soviet digression from Iya and Masha’s story that broadens the scope of the film’s bleakness. The relative lack of score or diegetic music adds to the sense of hollowness, of empty surrender; a purgatorial atmosphere from which Masha is driven to escape by finagling her way into a nuclear family, baby included. She cajoles Iya into being her surrogate, cruelly manipulating her into a sexual tryst with the hospital’s head doctor ― and the fact that Iya is willing to make such a physical sacrifice for her friend and lover becomes the film’s most troublesome and pivotal point.
Though Masha has been through hardship as a kept woman for generals on the frontlines, we gradually understand that it hasn’t taught her greater empathy, or any moralising lessons about humanity. It’s only made her a war-hardened bully ― more stubborn than ever to get exactly what she wants from a barren, ungenerous world. The love between her and Iya can’t be anything other than toxic, and Iya’s relative lack of autonomy throughout the duration of Beanpole can be an unsatisfying balance, regardless of how realistically helpless such a character would’ve been in postwar Russia. The film begins and ends on her ― the way her heartbreak characterises her physical and mental experience of her world ― but in between, Masha runs the show, robbing us of the opportunity to stick as closely as promised to Iya’s story of quiet longing.
At times, Balagov’s unrelenting talent for tragedy pushes the proceedings into melodrama – a few of the conveniently timed ‘holy shit’ moments in the script’s third act feel overly scripted when balanced atop such a weighty foundation of historical and personal sadness. Though nominated for the Queer Palm at Cannes, Beanpole doesn’t feel committed enough to its central queer love story to pull off sweeping moments like its own sick take on the archetypal rom-com ‘run for your love’ third act climax, where one half of the unhealthy pair jogs through the streets of Leningrad to find her partner.
But the film’s fitful tossing and turning from Eros to Thanatos, from sex to death in the span of a single scene also feels more vital than most of the frosty, prestigious examinations of postwar Europe out there. Without the feverish swinging of that pendulum, some of Beanpole’s most impactful moments couldn’t exist, like the scene in which Iya watches Masha try on a luxurious green dress. At first, Masha is playful, giggling and spinning in the dress like a kid, before she begins to grow frenzied and starts to hyperventilate, each turn becoming more lopsided, more full of Isabelle Adjani moshpit madness. It’s transfixing, and there’s multiple scenes like it; Iya and Pashka joyfully wrestling on the floor, hospital’s amputees asymmetrically a bird, the stump of one arm flapping gracefully up and down.
Haunting and sensuous, Beanpole is never as captivating as its miserable first 15 minutes, but in its unexpected formal choices and the intestinal winding of its fragile protagonist’s destiny, it still feels like something special. The way Iya admits to Masha that her agonising, nonconsensual wrestling with the doctor hasn’t resulted in pregnancy says it all: “There’s nobody inside of me,” Iya mournfully intones, a weird, general turn of phrase that lets us in on her own dissociative state. There’s no room for innocence in frantic post-war rehabilitation ― for children like Pashka, and Masha’s imagined miracle baby, but also for innocent adults like Iya, whose alternatives are shown to be complicated and painful. Whether Balagov’s audience can stomach the vagueness and cruelty implicit in those alternatives is another question entirely.
Beanpole will be playing on 18 August 2019 as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival.
Eliza Janssen is a Melbourne writer of criticism and screenplays who wants you to know that there are pterodactyls in the background of the breakfast table montage in Citizen Kane. For more information visit elizajanssen.com / @eliza_janssen