In Postwar Leningrad, Iya “Beanpole” (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) try to live their lives, caring for Masha’s son and working in the overworked hospital. Each dreaming of futures they will struggle to reach, they must decide what they are willing to do to improve their lives.
Beanpole is a thoroughly heartbreaking work of realist cinema. Based on actual accounts of women living their lives in post-war Russia, the film has a veracity and earnestness that is quite astonishing. The impact of the war is present in every frame. Every character is damaged, scarred and in some way impaired. There are pictures of dead children on every desk and there’s a quiet defeat in the demeanour of every character.
The film eschews the traditional greyscale colour pallet of a post-war setting. Subtle but warm greens and reds recall Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Green in particular seems to have symbolic significance. Beanpole often wears it abundantly. A would-be nursery is slathered in it. A dress that serves as a painful reminder of times past a disguise for ambitions. Perhaps Green represents the impossible aspirations of the main characters, or a hope now passed from the world. The film intimately documents its subjects with emphasis on close ups. The sound design too picks up the strained breathing and uncomfortable swallows of the characters. It’s a soundscape of human frailty.
Beanpole is about the impossibility of kindness and love in the aftermath of war. Having lost her child, Masha hopes first to feel a connection with someone and then hopes to replace her child. She proves capable of great manipulation and cruelty in her pursuit of her goal. Beanpole on the other hand only hopes to receive affection from Masha and, unable to do so, tries instead to control her with the promise of a child, compromising her own identity in the process. A weathered but seemingly kind-hearted old doctor attempts to care for his patients and his battered staff but he too becomes compromised.
There are real moments of warmth in the film to counteract the darkness. These character’s wouldn’t be so compelling if they weren’t also playful, silly and hopeful. Although children are often absent, a young boy’s mere existence sparks delight in all who see him at the start of the film. Beautiful sequences of ravaged people finding joy in the boy’s innocence are soon brought to an end due to a tragic twist of fate. Nothing truly flourishes in this city.
Beanpole is a harsh film. Beautiful to behold but terrible to experience, it’s a film about the unforgiving nature of war and the difficulty of true kindness amongst the damaged.