Film Analysis: Beanpole (Russia, 2019) Violence in the Mundane: A Uniquely Female Account of Post-war Trauma
Visual Credit: Margot Whipps
A genre dominated by vulgar, action-packed battle sequences, few war films endeavor to focus on that which unfolds when the dust settles after combat. While the director, Kantemir Balagov, refrains from showcasing the gore of physical battle, he masterfully captures the too-often overlooked psychological carnage of war in his second feature film, Beanpole. Set in post-World War II Leningrad, the movie offers a gripping, strikingly intimate account of the traumas and anxieties which accompany the ubiquitous violence of battle, following two women endeavoring to pick up the pieces of their war-torn lives amidst the backdrop of a devastated city.
The film begins with a close-up shot of Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed “Beanpole” in allusion to her gangly stature, as she resides in a state of standing paralysis. Staring catatonically, she towers above the women bustling around her as they appear strangely unphased by her unresponsiveness. A nurse tending to those injured in combat, Beanpole herself is an ex-soldier, and it is soon revealed that her bouts of immobility stem from a head injury sustained in battle, allowing for her discharge. When an untimely spell of paralysis lands her in the throes of unspeakable tragedy (no spoilers!), Beanpole is shocked to find that Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), her comrade and close friend, has returned from the front.
As Masha secures employment alongside Beanpole at the hospital, she beguiles the timid young woman into a web of manipulation. Cashing in on a “favor” which she believes is owed to her, Masha can subjugate Beanpole into conceiving and carrying a child on her behalf.
This disconcerting proposition frames the remainder of the narrative as the women attempt to rebuild their lives amidst the backdrop of a crumbling Leningrad, vesting hope for their figurative rebirth in the unborn child.
As their codependency becomes increasingly damaging to both women, each vies for domination over the other: frantically admitting to a coworker, “I need to be the master of her,” Beanpole reveals her desire to reign over Masha, yearning to grasp a sense of control amongst the chaos.
A testament to Balagov’s directorial expertise, Beanpole can depict destruction in a manner that packs a much harder punch than the blood-and-guts brutality which defines most war films. With the unsettling silence of the hospital and Beanpole’s despondent stare, he eerily illuminates violence in the mundane, insisting that the shadows of war are just as terrifying as active siege. Accordingly, the film’s cinematography brilliantly supplements its plot: richly saturated interiors contrast the pale, sullen complexions of defeated soldiers, subtly suggesting that while the physical battle may have concluded, psychological strife lingers.
Loosely based on Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (1985), an oral history of the Russian women who braved the front lines during World War II, Balagov’s film offers a uniquely female perspective which seldom exists within the genre of war cinema. Though Beanpole and Masha nurse male soldiers upon returning from battle, the narrative notably subverts the trope of the inherently gentle and domestic wartime woman, cheering for men from the periphery of the battlefield: Balagov offers no solace in womanhood, candidly depicting the indiscriminate nature of violence and, in doing so, providing insight into the dog-eat-dog essence of female friendship.
While Beanpole is an undeniably heavy watch, it’s a knockout- I would recommend it to any fans of historical fiction, foreign film buffs, or simply anyone looking to try something new. My review only scratches the surface of this cinematic gem- there’s so much more to unpack, and you won’t be disappointed!