Close Reading: Beanpole
The Critics Academy, a program of Film at Lincoln Center and a venture of Film Comment, is a workshop for aspiring film writers, providing a valuable platform to launch their careers. Throughout the 57th New York Film Festival, Film Comment will be publishing work from young critics taking part in the program.
There is an act of kindness in Beanpole that is performed by sliding a needle into the neck of a paralyzed soldier named Stepan. The moment is quiet, without music or cinematic flourish; everyone else in the hospital room where the scene takes place is sleeping. Iya (Viktoria Mironshnichenko), a Leningrad nurse who suffered severe brain trauma as a soldier in the war, administers the injection out of frame with steady hands. It is a dose that is meant to stop Stepan’s increasing existential pain, one that is meant to kill.
There are many similarly devastating scenes in Beanpole, a film that conveys the thorny struggles of humanity that come in the wake of war: testing the boundaries of loyalty, frantic searches for redemption, and the anguishing work of doing what is right, even if it is painful. It’s a film that feels like a new entry in a veteran filmmaker’s long and varied body of work. However, this is director Kantemir Balagov’s second feature, and at 28, he has already won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes this year for Best Directing and a FIPRESCI award last year for his Cannes feature debut, Closeness.
During the scene where Iya is asked to euthanize Stepan, the large room where the wounded soldiers sleep is filled with snores. Earlier that day, Stepan’s wife had finally arrived to visit her husband. It is through her intercession that Stepan’s request for death to Nikolay (Andrey Bykov), the weary but compassionate hospital administrator, is made clear. As Stepan slowly expires following his injection, Iya crouches beside his bed and blows cigarette smoke into his mouth. Her hands tremble in the diffused street light shining through the windows. Stepan’s death encapsulates what may be the central tension and struggle of Iya and Beanpole, the untenable task of performing painful acts of kindness, and failing that, then loyalty.
Iya and the paralyzed soldier, Stepan, are introduced to us much earlier in the film amidst a whirlwind of wounded Soviet soldiers and the hospital staff that looks after them. The relationship between these two groups is depicted as genial and familiar. A vulnerable, unvarnished kind of physical intimacy among the nurses and soldiers is unavoidable because of what everyone has experienced within those walls: limbs lost and severed, memories slipping away slowly or with rapid speed, the uncertainty about whether such catastrophic and irreversible damage was worth it.
Some of these images can feel familiar from other films set during or after World War II—the bloodied brown bandages, the crooked smiles of the infirm, the defiant strength that is a result of having endured worse things. Yet Beanpole resides within a particular phase of the war movie narrative, after the terror and glory of armed conflict but before the supposed romance of recovery and renewed strength following survival. Beanpole is situated firmly in the immediate days and months following destruction, charting the intractable damage that war wreaks upon everyone caught within its vicinity. There are those who have been physically wounded by it and those who happen to witness it.
Tall Iya, whose nickname gives the film its title, is one of many in Leningrad who travels through such twin worlds, what Belarussian historian Svetlana Alexievich calls the “two wars”: first the one fought on the battlefield, and then the aftermath. Alexievich’s book of interviews with female Soviet soldiers, The Unwomanly Face of War, served as the primary inspiration for director Balagov when preparing the film. While conducting research for the book, Alexievich wrote in her journal: “Whatever women talk about, the thought is constantly present in them: war is first of all murder, and then hard work.”
As Iya towers over freezing crowds in the streets, passing diligently through the halls of the hospital, her near translucent blonde hair and pale skin above her comrades’ heads, the haunted past informing an equally unsettling present is always palpable. It seems fitting that Iya’s brain trauma is an alarming literalization of this. Seemingly at random, her body will freeze, her eyes glazing over, her breath caught in her throat. It is that sound of trapped air that is the first thing we hear in the entire film.
Before Stepan’s death, during one of her catatonic episodes, Iya is proxy to tragedy. While playing with a young boy in her apartment, Iya falls on top of him and freezes, her weight full on top of him until the boy suffocates and dies. The child, named Pashka, had been raised as Iya’s own, but the reality is far more complicated. He was the son of Iya’s long absent friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), a former soldier and comrade-in-arms who entrusted Iya with his care once Iya was discharged following her head injury. Played with deft control and sincerity by Perelygina, Masha is at once volatile and emotionally stunted by her experience in the war. It has been years since Iya has seen her. Now, Masha has returned. With steely resolve and a determination to bring life into the world, Masha demands that Iya carry a new child for her. Iya, who has never had sex and even broken a man’s arm in order to evade his advances, is asked to do what she believes is impossible.
Iya performs Stepan’s euthanization with the emotional weight and terror of all these preceding events fresh in her mind. “I don’t want to help anymore,” she says to the hospital administrator after hearing Stepan’s last wish. He indulges her by asking why not, but the administrator still leaves her with no choice. The two-shot from which this scene plays out illustrates it all: people on opposite sides of a table, trying to make their intentions understood. Masha’s request for life is couched in Stepan’s request for death. Either way, Iya is given little room to protest, crushed as she is by both guilt and a desire to do what she can to help everyone but herself heal in the wake of destruction. In The Unwomanly Face of War, Alexievich writes, “Those who were in the war remember that it took three days for a civilian to turn into a military man. Why are three days enough? Or is that also a myth? Most likely. A human being in war is all the more unfamiliar and incomprehensible.”
When Stepan sighs his final breath, Iya looks up. Across the room, in the darkness, she sees Masha watching, waiting to see what Iya will do next.
Nicholas Russell’s work, fiction and non-fiction, has appeared in the Believer, the Rumpus, and Columbia Journal, among other publications.