In the ruins of Leningrad in 1945, death has become a painful normality as its citizens adjust to life in the shadows of the tragedies of war. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is dealing with dissociation due to PTSD, an after effect of the time she has spent on the frontline. Despite her PTSD, she works in a military hospital to support Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), a young boy she cares for. When Pashka dies during one of these fits, and his mother Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) returns from the military, an uneasy friendship of convenience turns into a battle for control and power.
Director Kantemir Balagov and Aleksandr Terekhov’s script is minimal as silence stretches out in the place of dialogue; the quiet intakes of breath and the small nervous clicks of Iya’s dissociative episodes are often the only sound. With no score or non-diegetic soundtrack Beanpole’s tension is built not through musical cues but instead through the words unsaid. A look is able to say more than a sentence, and a nod of a head confirming the death of a child is more painful than any expositional monologue.
No one here is untouched by trauma. From the soldiers in the desolate and decaying hospital wards to the inhabitants of the building where Iya resides, everyone is desperately looking for something to give them hope. For a short while Iya has that sense of hope in Pashka, whom she cares to with an unspoken tenderness, falling asleep curled round him at night in a single bed. Masha’s scars from war, both physical and mental, are more outwardly visible, such as a raw cut on her stomach from an operation to her uncontrollable anger after her return. These mental scars are further illustrated in an eerie scene where she retells the efforts she went to in order to survive in the army.
Balagov subverts the idea of the war film both through a (almost) complete absence of violence, as well as an unusual colour palette that drenches every shot. Vibrant gold and deep ochre clash with the clinical, hospital-corridor green in a way that shouldn’t work on screen, but here, it elevates Beanpole above the typical bleached and lifeless cinematography that we are so often accustomed to when it comes to period dramas. Kseniya Sereda’s artistic direction ensures that any action happens in a place that is not quite our own, an otherworldly plane where the after effects of war are plainly and unnervingly on view.
Miroshnichenko’s performance as Iya is one of almost non-existence, with her platinum blonde hair and the faint pale lashes that frame her expressive eyes. She is seen to others around her as a woman who needs protecting — an old man in her building repeatedly proposes marriage as a solution. But Iya is capable of violence, subterfuge, and very dangerous anger. The few scenes where violence does break out mostly take place off screen. Iya’s breaking a young man’s arm, for instance, is more played for laughs more than anything more sinister. The potency of Pashka’s death scene is all the more horrific for the close-up static shot of Iya’s shoulder, as the young boy’s hand grabs at her hair and clothes in desperation — until it doesn’t.
It’s hard to enjoy a film like Beanpole — it probes into your mind and settles there, allowing the narrative to take root and refuse to move. It is a film of feelings, of the emptiness that remains after war, of the unspoken trauma of a city, of a relationship that is teetering on the edge of danger.