Love from the rubble
An intimate character drama set in post-war Russia
This astonishing new film drama from Russia is full of rewards and surprises, not the least of which is that while its story (two young women struggling to survive amid the wreckage and devastation of World War II) may sound like pretty standard fare, its quirky way with the telling of that tale brings a fascinating freshness to the entire proceedings.
The plot summary included in the advance publicity for Beanpole is not inaccurate: “1945, Leningrad. WWII has devastated the city, demolishing its buildings and leaving its citizens in tatters, physically and mentally. Two young women search for meaning and hope in the struggle to rebuild their lives amongst the ruins.”
That summary sets the scene well enough, but the multifaceted brilliance of Beanpole mostly emerges in the (often paradoxical, sometimes mystifying) details of character and action. There are at least six or seven oddly puzzling characters, including the two protagonists, and a cast of offbeat performers to play them.
Director/co-writer Kantemir Balagov and his lead actors produce a kind of visual essay on the ambiguities of a person’s smile, all the while putting it to richly ironic use in the key characterizations.
It’s also an oblique sort of love story with a passel of smaller love stories attached, all of them under the duress of ferociously unfortunate circumstances. And those love stories are variously entangled with several stinging little dramas of marriage, parenting and surrogates for both. A crumbling patriarchy is part of it as well, while a wounded matriarchal authority seems in rather ambivalent ascendancy.
The two friends at the heart of the story are Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina). Both have seen action as soldiers in the Russian army, and both have returned home to Leningrad, where Iya is working in a hospital and fitfully recovering from shell shock. Iya, nicknamed “Beanpole” because she is skinny and very tall, is the title character, but Masha is the more commanding of the two, and the most central and complex of the film’s many fighters, lovers and survivors.
An infant son and an intermittent drama of surrogate mothers are crucial to the relationship of Masha and Iya. Failed courtships and brutally comical sex scenes are part of the action as well.
Other character standouts include Igor Shirokov as Sasha, the schlemiel-like suitor of Masha; Andrey Bykov as Nikolay Ivanovich, the war-weary physician who gets intimately involved with Iya; Konstantin Balakirev as Stepan, a gravely wounded soldier who wishes for a quick death; and Kseniya Kutepova as Lyubov Petrovna, Sasha’s imperious and somewhat Masha-like mother.