"There’s nothing left inside you to make life,” says Dr Nikolay Ivanovich to Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) at the hospital where they are treating the injured, battered, paraplegic soldiers who have managed to hold on to a tiny strand of life. It is 1945 Leningrad and the devastation of irrefragable struggle is reflected in every inch of society and space that director Kantemir Balagov creates in Beanpole. The statement stands like an ominous act of divination about the Soviet Union itself, feeling the effects of the war, the country bearing the brunt of defeating the Nazis and with no hope of recovery soon.
The Allied Forces of the West taste sweet success and the baby boomer era begins — a generational epoch, a time when the West birthed a generation that would go on to be the symbol of economic superpower, along with the counterculture mores. In Beanpole, Balagov paints a dispiriting picture of that inchoate period in the Soviet Union, as a baby or the absence of one is what comes to define the equation between Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) aka Beanpole and Masha, a soldier who has just returned from war.
Balagov’s reconstruction of the time is impressive, using green with a mix of limited warm colours to express an emotion tending towards the feeling of being lost, forgotten, or worse, omitted. Obliterated the country might already be, but the tired faces that must deal with incoming maimed soldiers and the scramble for rations are etched in the claustrophobic spaces and long takes of Beanpole. Balagov’s frames are busy, there is an early one with a group of patients entertaining themselves with Pashka — Masha’s son who is under Iya’s care while she is away — and they are performing charades for him to identify, acting out like animals.
They then ask Pashka to act one out for them to guess and Balagov frames this from behind the kid, looking at his audience, an array of dispossessed soldiers, looking down at him as their hope for the future, the one for whom they hope someone will rebuild the country now that they’ve taken care of bigger evils. But the evils are still at play in Beanpole, in the form of being unable to bear another baby, in the rigid divisions between the working and the ruling classes, not to mention the apathy of the latter. “Beyond the gates of the hospital, a peaceful life awaits,” says an official visiting the hospital to check in on the patients and distribute gifts.
That is not the face of someone willing to rebuild the country from scratch. Beyond those gates is a point no patient wants to cross, their resolve dialled up to alarming levels in a few cases as we gradually learn. Stepan, one of the soldiers paralysed up to his shoulders, says that he must be the father of his daughters and not the other way round. Balagov was inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s book, The Unwomanly Face of War, oral histories of women who were part of the war as nurses, snipers, doctors, etc in the frontlines. In Beanpole, Iya and Masha have already forged a tempestuous relationship by the time we see them together, but they deeply understand that they also have only each other. And Balagov puts them together in the same frame a lot.
Beanpole is full of people — especially Iya and Masha — negotiating their relationship in a single frame, there are hardly any reverse shots. We have them looking deep into the eyes of each other with just thin daylight between them or hatching elaborate plans to have a baby between them in as few words as possible. Balagov uses these faces in silence more than words to convey their import, a challenge the two actors rise to with imperious aplomb. Iya and Masha, while looking out for each other, suffer in different ways. Iya gets a form of epileptic seizures where she freezes for a few seconds, an ailment that invalidated her out of the army. This is trauma wrought clear on the face while also demonstrating that hers is a life frozen in time, like the time the country itself feels stuck in. Masha is more of a doer, going to any lengths to secure her future.
When she visits Sasha, son of the official who visited the hospital and the one who considers Masha his fiancé, Balagov leaps to white snow and a cooler shade of blue to represent a different Russia, the bourgeois in all its filthy splendour. It is this test of tensile strength between the two — Iya pushed over the edge with her trauma of both on-field experience and a recent tragedy, and Masha pulling for a future that is very reminiscent of what a baby boomer kid in the West would have been in a better place to imagine — that Balagov indulges in. She tells Iya about the destined baby, “We’ll raise him together, I’ll be studying, and we’ll go to the cinema.” It’s a dream that got written for a generation that authored its own pop culture and happened to be on the other side of the Cold War. But in Beanpole, Balagov insists, the immediate days after the war already hinted of a more ever-lasting cataclysm, as experienced by the two women struggling to create a shared life for them and one of their own. A quest to nurture challenged by the nature of the surroundings.