Beanpole ★★★★★

“You fought and survived. And now…”

For the first thirty minutes or so, I had no idea where Beanpole was going. Then, when I started to get an inkling of how this story was going to unfold, that's when I started to get really nervous. This is a movie that begins with a truly disconcerting shot - a it's a pan out from a woman, seemingly frozen in place, making these awful, clicking noises from deep within her throat, standing in the middle of a bustling hospital where everyone's seemingly ignoring her plight - and somehow, the discomfort only amps up from there.

Beanpole begins as the story of one woman and her son; Iya, a hulking woman who still manages to shrink in the presence of others, who we learn was a member of the Red Army before she was “invalided out” for her unpredictable freezing fits. She's now a nurse in the hospital for the damned, veterans of the war who will never recover, where she tends to her patients and tries to do best by her son.

Then, there's an unspeakably tragic, nauseating occurrence, and soon after we learn that the child isn't actually Iya’s son; he's the child of Masha, Iya's former friend from the front lines, who sent her child away with Iya when she was discharged. She's back now, and somehow is able to clock to exactly what happened to her child without having to have been told. She's carrying her own damage; as a result of wartime injury, she can no longer conceive, and the one thing she longs for is a child to call her own.

Her quest to fulfill that need of hers - and the ways in which she ropes Iya into helping her - propel the drama into queasy, perennially uncomfortable directions. Crucially, however, Beanpole doesn't lather it on too thick. This is a depressing as fuck movie, one which captures the horrors of war and the mental scars of a wounded nation pretty damn effectively, but for my money, the thing does manage to avoid devolving into empty misery porn.

I think it's because the main focus of the drama isn't the circumstances; it's the characters within those circumstances. This is a film that's very concerned with the psychology of its two leads, much more so than it is the sociopolitical underpinnings of the changing world around them. There are elements of social commentary that could be read into this film - certainly, the way soldiers are treated and discarded by the state is a point of note - but crucially, any larger "points" that the film is trying to make run secondary to the relationship between these two women.

And it is an endlessly fascinating relationship, one which runs almost exclusively on what isn't said. Even more so than last year's Portrait of a Lady on Fire (which also might be counted as this year's, because of stagnated wide releases and such), this is a movie that counts on you to be attuned to the nuances within their glances, the most minute expression changes on their faces. It functions mainly on subtext, which this film does a really good job of drawing your attention to without ever overplaying its hand.

With that said, this is a beautifully made film, one which manages this great trick of being really heavily stylized, in a way that doesn't sacrifice the inherent grim realities of the story. This might seem like a super weird comparison to make, but the way this film is shot sort of feels like the original Suspiria’s color scheme mixed with the gritty tone of the remake. It's a vibrant visual palette, which combined with some truly brilliant camerawork, makes for one of the most expressive and exciting films to look at this year so far. Kseniya Sereda shot this film; so far, she is the cinematographer of the year.

I don't think the thing entirely works in its final few scenes, at least not in my first viewing; it swerves into slightly unexpected territory, and then seems to offer emotional resolution in a manner that I'm not sure the film did enough to telegraph beforehand. It still works, at least on a general thematic level; we're still asking the same questions about what this woman is due, after all the world has done to her. But it does seem slightly like for the last couple of minutes, a different movie has suddenly taken over.

Which, in total fairness, might be the point. I'm not usually crazy about that excuse for something bothering you ("Such-and-such was meant to be unsatisfying!" "Yeah, and it was.") but something about the way Beanpole wraps up suggests to me that if I ever give this a rewatch, and I know where it ends up, I'll be able to track the progression with more clarity, or appreciate the larger point it's making about class and gender divides and whatnot. The rest of the movie is so well put-together, its balance between misery and understanding so well judged, I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.

The director of the picture is Kantemir Balagov; from what I can tell, this is his second feature film after 2017's Closeness, which I haven't seen yet, and which doesn't seem to be streaming anywhere. I'm gonna make the effort to track that down, because he's made a great film here, a challenging piece that doesn't offer any easy answers, and doesn't excuse the frankly hideous ways some of these characters treat each other, but still manages to offer empathy and understanding.

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