Beanpole may be the heaviest film of 2020. It’s as heavy as they come. The kind of film that reaches not just into the soul but physically impales its audience, clutching and twisting our hearts and scraping out any inner feeling. The only way to have an authentic experience is just to watch it outright. It creates a significant problem for the reviewer: we should not talk too much about Beanpole. The conversation truly needs to be between the filmmaker and the audience. Out of respect for their bold creation, like nothing else you will see over the course of the year, we must adamantly suggest that the reader has a clean experience of the film, in a vacuum.
Director Kantemir Balagov shows incredible restraint and control in every shot. Their practiced direction holds the focus of every frame of the picture. They capably bend storytelling outside the normalized bounds of a modern war picture. Beanpole does not have anything common with anything else. It stands alone, as a full-fledged unique experience onto itself, as astute and bold as any master directors have done.
The title itself suggests its odd difference, named after its spindly and long-necked Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko, a perfect performance). She is not the character of any other war story. Unlikely and troubled, she’s situated in hospice care, in the shadow of Leningrad’s fiercest battle, circa 1945. Films about hollowed-out cities with hollowed-out people in them are always special, and this is a damn good one of those. The film deals heavily in the unseen wounds of war, the fragmented, PTSD-laced hellscape that is dealing with the war behind the war, as she receives all of its worst outcomes. In the hospital, she meets Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina, also perfect) and creates a tight and fascinating bond. Their interactions live within the female gaze. To say anything more spoils such fantastic interactions. I do not wish to leave the reader any out, please do see Beanpole for yourself.
Watching the film feels like being on the receiving end of some blunt force trauma. It took this critic a long time to settle on a set feeling about the movie. What I’ve landed on is not love — the film may be unlovable — but genuine admiration. The precise color scheming remains as vibrant in my mind as the outright PTSD that unfolds on-screen. Potentially, we have the formative material of a Russian classic. The film looks beautiful, and if we could touch it, we know it would feel beautiful; it has such a profound texture. Balagov nearly renders the soul condition of his characters, we understand them beautifully. It’s brazen and wildly different from anything else at the movies this year. It is not an enjoyable movie, per se, but it is always a necessary one.