January 26, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Kantemir Balagov
Russian with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place shortly after World War II in Leningrad, Russia, the female-centric “Beanpole” has an all-white cast of characters representing people from various social classes, ranging from working-class to middle-class to upper-class.
Culture Clash: Two female war veterans who are best friends have difficulties adjusting to life after the war, as they encounter obstacles due to their socioeconomic status, and the two friends have conflicts with each other over motherhood issues.
Culture Audience: “Beanpole” will appeal primarily to fans of arthouse cinema from Europe.
The opening scene of the dramatic film “Beanpole” doesn’t leave any doubt that the movie’s title character has something very wrong with her. In the beginning of the film, Russian nurse Iya Tsvylyova (who’s nicknamed “Beanpole” because she’s very tall and thin) is seen in a hospital laundry room in a trance-like state, and she’s making noises that sound like she wants to speak but she can’t. Is she mute? Is she in shock over something? Is she mentally challenged?
It turns out that she’s none of the above, but the movie keeps you guessing over when she’ll go in and out of these trances. Iya (played by Viktoria Miroshnichenko) can talk just fine when she’s not in a trance, so there’s nothing wrong with her vocal cords. Based on her co-workers’ reactions, they’re aware of Iya having these unexplained episodes of detachment, and the only thing they can do when she’s in a trance is wait for her to snap out of it.
The story takes place just after World War II, and Iya works as a nurse in a Leningrad hospital for wounded veterans. Her life revolves around her job and caring for Pashka (played by Timofey Glazkov), a boy who is about 4 or 5 years old. At first, the movie leads you to believe that Pashka is Iya’s son, since the child is living with her and she treats him exactly like how a loving mother would treat a child. But something terrible happens to Pashka, resulting in his death, and we find out that Iya is not the boy’s biological mother.
Pashka’s real mother is Masha (played by Vasilisa Perelygina), a military veteran and Iya’s best friend, who has returned from the war, not knowing that her son has died. Masha has not seen her son since he was a baby or a toddler, so when Masha visits Iya at home to retrieve Pashka, Masha is eager to find out how much her son has changed. The look of fear and dread on Iya’s face tells Masha that something awful has happened, and she correctly guesses that Pashka is dead. When Masha asks how Paskha died, Iya lies to Masha by saying that Paskha died in his sleep, because Iya knows that telling Masha the truth would be too devastating. Masha doesn’t go into hysterics and seems to internalize her grief.
Meanwhile, it’s eventually revealed that Iya is also a military veteran. She and Misha served in the war as anti-aircraft gunners, but Iya was discharged from the military, due to getting a concussion that presumably has caused her to go into these trances. It’s also likely that Iya has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), since it’s implied that she developed this condition during the war.
Despite the tragedy of losing her son Pashka while the child was in Iya’s care, Masha decides to remain a close friend to Iya, and she moves in with her, since Masha has no family and has no other place to go. (It’s mentioned that Pashka’s father died in the war.)
The two women are opposites. Iya is shy, awkward and seems to be sexually inexperienced. Masha is outgoing, feisty and very open about the fact that she’s had several lovers. And their attitudes greatly differ when it comes to having children, which affects what happens later on in the story.
“Beanpole” shows that one of the harsh realities of post-World War II life in Russia was that the country was plagued with food shortages, and women often prostituted themselves by having sex with men in exchange for food. That’s what happens when Masha and Iya are walking down a street one night, and they’re spotted by two young men driving by in a car, and the men offer them the food that they have in the car.
Masha knows what the men are after, but Iya seems to be completely unaware of what’s expected of her and Masha after they eat the food that the men have offered to them. One of the men takes Iya outside, while Masha stays in the car and has quickie sex with the other man in the back seat of the car. Masha and the guy have barely finished when he’s dragged out of the car by Iya, who punches him in the face.
It turns out that Iya has also assaulted the other guy, who has witnessed Iya’s rage toward his friend. It isn’t revealed how much sexual activity took place between Iya and the other guy, but he says with a strange smirk that his arm might be broken and that the two women were livelier than he thought they would be. While Iya and Masha run away, Iya scolds Masha for not telling her what the men’s intentions were, but Masha laughs because she thinks the entire incident is hilarious. It’s a sign that there’s something mentally “off” about Masha too.
Soon after that incident, Masha interviews for a job at the hospital. She flirts with the middle-aged supervisor Dr. Nikolay Ivanovich (played by Andrey Bykov), who’s interviewing her, and she’s intrigued by him because she knows that the doctor is sexually attracted to Iya. When Masha sees a photo of two young children on his desk, she asks him if those are his children. He tells her yes, but the children have died. When he asks her if she has any children, she tells him she doesn’t, and lies by saying that she hasn’t become a mother yet. Masha ends up getting a job as an attendant at the hospital.
Not long after she starts working at the hospital, Masha gets a nosebleed and mysteriously collapses. She’s diagnosed with exhaustion and finds out, to her horror, that her reproductive organs were removed without her knowledge during an operation that she had in the war. But in yet another sign of Masha’s mental instability, she reacts to the news in a bizarre way: She says she could be pregnant at that moment and it would be a miracle.
Eventually, reality sinks in, and Masha is devastated over knowing that she can never conceive a child again. She tells Iya that not being a mother makes her feel empty, so she asks Iya to get pregnant and give the child to Masha to raise as her own. Iya is shocked by the proposal and is terrified at the thought of having sex with a sperm donor, but Masha puts a guilt trip on Iya about Pashka’s death, by saying to Iya, “You owe me.”
Later at the hospital, Masha runs into someone unexpected: the guy she had sex with in the car. By a strange twist of fate, he works at the hospital as an orderly. His name is Alexander, nicknamed Sasha (played by Igor Shirokov), and he’s clearly infatuated with Masha. Sasha pursues her romantically and starts spending more time at Iya and Masha’s place, much to Iya’s dismay. Later on in the movie, Masha finds out why Iya is so jealous of Sasha. Iya isn’t the only one with a secret. Sasha has also been secretive about a part of his life, and when he shows that side of his life to Masha, it permanently changes his relationship with her.
Does Iya agree to get pregnant? And if so, who will impregnate her? Does she give birth and then give the baby to Masha? Those are questions that are answered in the movie, but that information won’t be revealed in this review. It’s enough to say that the emotional heart of the story is in Iya’s decision and what happens afterward. (The ending might not be what you think it is.)
“Beanpole” is the type of movie that will sneak up on you with a few surprises, while telling a story that is specific yet universal. While most people will never know what it’s like to be a Russian female World War II veteran, almost everyone can relate to having the type of friendship where uncommon favors and sacrifices are made because of the friendship. People who have parenthood issues, especially when it comes to infertility or losing a child to death, can also be emotionally impacted by this story.
“Beanpole” director Kantemir Balagov, who wrote the movie’s screenplay with Aleksandr Terekhov, unfolds the story by revealing details in a scattered way that eventually comes together to make sense, much like putting pieces of a puzzle together. For example, some of the characters are introduced and we get to know their personalities, but their names aren’t revealed until much later in the story. “Beanpole” is the first film for actresses Miroshnichenko and Perelygina, who have made impressive debuts by convincingly portraying the ups, downs and nuances of a friendship that’s deeply affected by love and the emotional wounds of war.
The movie also realistically shows that these female war veterans, who work in a hospital taking care of male war veterans, don’t really have anyone looking after their own emotional needs as veterans. Iya and Masha don’t discuss any of their war stories in the movie, as if they just want to put the war behind them. The bond between combat comrades who’ve gone through a war together is an underlying reason why their friendship is so strong and was able to withstand the tragedy of Pashka’s death.
“Beanpole” had its world premiere at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where Balagov won the award for Best Director in the Un Certain Regard category. The movie then made the rounds at other prestigious festivals (including the Toronto International Film Festival, the Telluride Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and AFI Fest), and was chosen as Russia’s official 2019 entry for the Academy Awards category Best International Feature Film. Ultimately, “Beanpole” didn’t get an Oscar nomination, but the movie has revealed promising new talent in Miroshnichenko and Perelygina, who will likely have a bright future in Russian cinema.
Kino Lorber will release “Beanpole” in New York City on January 29, 2020. The movie’s theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada will expand to other cities, beginning February 12, 2020. “Beanpole” was originally released in Russia in 2019.