Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) suffers from post-concussion syndrome after fighting on the frontlines during the Siege. Now a nurse in a musty Leningrad hospital that heaves with the dead and dying, she’s prone to sudden fits of paralysis; her muscles freeze, her voice is swallowed by a feeble croak, and her long alabaster body is no longer under her control. In these vulnerable moments, Iya truly earns the nickname that gives “Beanpole” its title: The crane-like twenty-something — whose white eyebrows make it seem as though the cold she experienced in the army may have altered her on a genetic level — goes stiff as a stick, and would tip right over at the slightest touch.
Iya’s condition may be unique, but she’s far from the only character in Kantemir Balagov’s stolid yet achingly sympathetic post-war drama who’s struggling to regain a hold on themselves. Many of the wounded soldiers in Iya’s hospital have been deprived of their own autonomy; Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev), the most hopeless of the survivors, can’t feel anything below his neck, and pleads for the kind of mercy that no one can grant him under the law. Even in a time that’s subject to new rules of moral accounting — a time in which men are relieved to hear that two of their three children are still alive, and streetcars run over suicidal people like potholes — Stepan is hard-pressed to find the help he needs. But his plight, however tragic, is utterly simple compared to the one that’s waiting for his favorite nurse.
Inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s book “The Unwomanly Face of War,” Balagov’s frigid “Beanpole” tells a glacially paced but gorgeously plotted story about two women — two best friends — who grow so desperate for any kind of personal agency that they start using each other to answer the unsolvable arithmetic of life and death. The chipped green paint of Iya’s apartment walls, the sour white light that soaks the hospital windows, and the 600 meters of period-perfect set that Balagov’s “Roma”-caliber production team built for the transportive exterior scenes all cohere into a vivid snow-globe of space-time in which everything is believable, but nothing feels quite real.
The world is broken, but it keeps on spinning. Co-written by Balagov and Aleksandr Terekhov, the film happens upon a number of indelible ways to articulate this purgatorial kind of inertia. None cuts to the quick like the scene in which Iya brings her young “son” Pashka (Timofey Glazkov) to the hospital for a cheery game of charades with the patients in her ward. When the boy is told to bark like a dog, he stares blankly at the rest of the room. “Where would he have seen a dog?” someone asks. “They’ve all been eaten.”
Even before Iya accidentally suffocates Pashka to death during one of her episodes — and even before the boy’s actual mother, Iya’s best friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), returns from the army to find that Iya “owes her a life” — “Beanpole” has already painted a bitter and extraordinarily textured portrait of a city that is just beginning to confront its trauma. These people have been mangled by a war that few have survived and have escaped; the fighting may be over, but peace isn’t necessarily waiting for them on the horizon. And while Iya and Masha are the only family that either one of them has left, it turns out they may not be much of a comfort to each other.
While “Beanpole” doesn’t really shift into gear until the start of its second hour, the demented energy that Masha lugs back to Leningrad is dangerous and unstable enough to suggest the film’s “slow-cinema” façade might crumble at any moment. Perelygina delivers a brilliant performance in her first movie role, embodying her character with the feral energy of a wounded shark that’s picked up the scent of its own blood.
The first of her many long, unblinking scenes finds her reuniting with Iya and casually asking if Pashka is still alive; Iya trembles and tells her the truth. Masha shrugs it off, grabs the proverbial steering wheel, and couldn’t be happier when she and Iya are nearly run over by two horny boys who are prowling the streets in daddy’s 1938 Mercedes. She pulls the younger one into the backseat and practically forces him inside of her — Masha wants a life to replace the one she lost, and she won’t be deterred by the inconvenient fact that her reproductive organs were surgically removed at some point before she completed her military service.
Despite being shot with a Kubrickian level of physical detail, “Beanpole” doesn’t include a single image of the Communist figureheads you might expect to dominate a film like this; Balagov, whose debut feature “Closeness” danced around similar crises with far more savagery, doesn’t want his audience looking down at the action through Lenin’s hollow eyes. Instead, he prioritizes circumstance over context, and stretches the somewhat uncomplicated story across time until its pockets of melodrama flatten out into more relatable moments of human longing.
Without ever reducing Iya or Masha into uncomplicated vessels, or slinking into the kind of retrograde gender essentialism that fuels anti-abortion policies, “Beanpole” explores the process through which people — specifically, but not exclusively, women — are able to restore a sense of purpose to their lives after they’ve been deprived of their biological imperative. Only Masha struggles to see past the basic utility of her own body, as she laments that she’s “meaningless inside,” but the movie around her is determined to prove that isn’t true. Unfolding with a steely resolve and brutal honesty that recalls Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,” Balagov’s film grows more powerful (and transcends its faint traces of miserablism) as Iya and Masha try to master each other without having a hold on themselves.
It’s a pas de deux that Miroshnichenko leads with a dancer’s grace, as she wilts and whimpers through one wrenching scene after another in order to realize all the ways in which love can be colder than death. “Beanpole” is slow to thaw, and its emotional impact is dulled by a structure that delays the story’s full power until the final moments, but there’s a resonant beauty to how these women seize control over their themselves.
“Beanpole” premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.