In the opening moments of Beanpole, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is seen standing still, unable to move, making a concerning noise that sounds like she’s choking. Iya suffers from post-concussion syndrome, and these incidents are so common to her coworkers that they mostly go about their business until the brief catatonic moment passes. Maybe it’s because Iya’s coworkers at a Leningrad hospital right after the end of World War II have seen her do this many times before, but as director and co-writer Kantemir Balagov and co-writer Aleksandr Terekhov will go on to show in Beanpole, everyone has their own version of trauma they’re dealing with after the war. If trauma is everywhere, Iya’s is just more immediately noticeable.
Everyone in Beanpole has their “trauma tell,” from Iya’s friend, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who will get a nosebleed, or the hospital doctor Nikolay (Andrey Bykov), who always wears the loss of his sons is somber expression, desperate to move to a hospital not full of such pain. Balagov makes the tragedy of life post-WWII a certainty, an inescapable disease that has infected the world.
Balagov’s film questions how to handle life-altering tragedy when the world seems entirely built on tragedy. While playing with her young son, Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), Iya has one of her episodes on top of him and smothers him to death. However, this child ends up actually being Masha’s son whom Iya was simply taking care of for the time being. When Iya tells Masha of her son’s death, Masha hears the tragic news, internalizes it, then goes out with Iya to go dancing. As Beanpole progresses, Masha’s agony starts to seep to the surface, demanding that Iya owes her a life and willfully ignoring her own past.
Bagalov presents a doomed, hellish world in desperate need of saving. Before his passing, Pashka plays a game with the invalids at the hospital where they mimic animals. When the patients asks Pashka to imitate a dog, they realize the boy has never seen a dog because, “they’ve all been eaten.” People throw themselves under streetcars rather than spend another day in this nightmare. Masha tries to give her apartment a new coat of paint, but gives up halfway, as spattered green paint barely covers up the wallpaper underneath. There’s a hopelessness to every action and the Bagalov’s presentation of this world reminds of the stark, imminent apocalypse of Children of Men.
But the true ache comes when Balagov does offer hope, only for the characters to realize what they’ve been missing all along. In one of Beanpole’s most harrowing scenes is when a neighbor asks Masha to wear a dress so she can make alterations. In a rare moment of joy, Masha asks if she can spin in the dress. At first, the spinning is a breath of much-needed relief, but as Masha spins and spins, her fury and frustrations comes out as if she’s almost incapable of stopping her rotations. In another difficult scene, Masha lays next to a crying Iya, who she actively ignores, knowing that interrupting her sobs will mean losing a chance at finding happiness once again.
In just his second film, Balagov has made a tremendous look at pain and suffering that somehow never suffocates the audience in despair. Balagov has already proved himself a master at balancing tone, making Beanpole strenuous but also fascinating in where he takes his characters. The way both Miroshnichenko and especially Perelygina portray these characters is staggering, as they both cling to each other and the hope that something or someone will dig them out of this seemingly endless nightmare.
Beanpole is one of the most complicated and finest films so far this year, a remarkable look at despondency by an exciting new director that’s already shown himself capable of great things, featuring two momentous performances. Despite its grim story and difficult subject matter, Beanpole is a rewarding, brilliant and important look at grief in all its forms.