Beanpole ★★★★

As gelid and repressed as Portrait of a Lady on a Fire (which also premiered at NYFF) is sensual and alive, Beanpole also involves two women bound together—romantically, but on a level markedly more complicated than that—in a world that leaves them precious little room to feel.

The first is Iya (Viktoria Mironshnichenko), also known as Beanpole due to her towering height and ungainly demeanor. She tends to “freeze,” they say, issuing only strangled clicks and croaks amid a dissociative state. The condition is an invisible scar, picked up toward the end of World War II. In 1945 Leningrad, the bullets have stopped flying, replaced by an eerie, shell-shocked calm. Iya, working as a nurse in a military hospital, has found a tiny shred of happiness in Pashka (Timofey Glazkow), a little boy who is the delight of infirm soldiers. During a game of charades, they accidentally stump the kid in a moment that perfectly showcases Beanpole’s grim humor and pessimistic worldview. “Where would he have seen a dog?” one soldier asks. “They’ve all been eaten.” 

For a time, this life feels survivable, if bitter. But then, while playing with Pashka, Iya freezes on top of the boy, and something unspeakably terrible befalls both of them. (The director, an incendiary 27-year-old talent named Kantemir Balagov, lets this scene play out with soul-annihilating clarity.)

Pashka’s real mother is Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who sent the boy to live with Iya when she was invalided out of the war. The emotional wildfire to Iya’s permafrost, she returns home full of sublimated rage and need. Beanpole is a tragedy of almost surreal magnitude for Iya and Masha, who feel the blue in their fingers whenever holding each another close. They are two dead trees in this scorched landscape, of little comfort to one another, barely known to themselves. But if Balagov’s narrative offers them little respite from the bone-deep horrors of their broken world, his formally elegant direction—flushed with color and winter light—suggests a stifled beauty still lying dormant somewhere.

And as Iya and Masha gradually regain control over their own lives, sifting through the rubble, Beanpole flickers with barely believed hope. It may be a lie—these women certainly tell plenty, to themselves as much as anyone listening—but there’s nothing false about how these two will their way through their impossible winter with only a dream of spring to sustain them.

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