By Alif Majeed.
It is easy to pigeon hole Beanpole as a modern-day queer classic. The trailer doesn’t help matter much as the initial reaction you get was Blue is the Warmest Color set during wartime or suggest that we might be watching a movie about unrequited love between two women during World War II.
But watching the movie was a truly gratifying experience. Sure, it is a painful movie to sit through, with some heartbreaking scenes that give a sense of utter despair. Finishing it though it opens a wide range of emotions that swirl around long after the movie is over.
Depending on who you ask, History and World War II could either be your favorite subjects growing up or the most boring ones to study. Thinking back, I now realize that though I was fascinated by much of what happened during the war, I rarely got interested in what happened after it. The period that many often tend to focus less on as it was often written as a small footnote in our school books: the aftermath.
Come and See might be the gold standard when it comes to Russian movies set during wartime, but Beanpole can easily claim a spot as one of the best Russian films that depict life after the war. It forces us to look at the impact and aftermath of the war and is spelled out from the first shot of the film.
As Beanpole opens, we see Iya, aka the titular Beanpole (Viktoria Mironshnichenko), frozen with PTSD related blackouts at the military hospital she works. We quickly realize that it happens quite often, and her fellow nurses and doctors are quite used to it despite the occasional snigger and pinch on the cheek to wake her up.
Though initially depicted with amusement, this crippling blackout acts as a catalyst that sets the movie in motion. In a terrifying and heartbreaking scene, Iya accidentally suffocates her child Pashka to death during one of her blackouts.
The scene that begins sweetly enough with the mother and child playfully imitating animals turns horrifying as it ends with a tight close up on the child’s hand as he helplessly tries to wrangle his way out of her hold. That haunting shot of his hand that first tries to fight and slowly and painfully gives up is the kind of searing moment that jolts you up completely unable to forget what happened for a while.
The movie then takes a sharp turn when we realize that the birth mother of Pashka is not Beanpole, but Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), a soldier scarred from the war, who comes back after the war to claim her child.
Viktoria Mironshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina are treasures who perfectly complement each other right from the very first scene they are together. Vasilisa might have the showier role, but Viktoria holds herself pretty well. You understand and find it hard to judge her harshly when out of sheer embarrassment and shame over the child’s death, she smudges the details of his death to Masha. Masha’s reaction to the news is equally strange as she reacts coldly and brushes it off, saying that she will have another child quickly to replace the one she lost. We get a glimpse of how the war has indeed affected both of them in that one scene.
Vasilisa, as Masha wins you over with her internalized reactions to what is happening to her. From her first scene with Iya, where she realizes her child is gone. To the moment, she realizes that she can’t have another and tells Beanpole needs to be a surrogate mother for her, because “she owes her a child.” Culminating in the climactic scene where she meets the parents of her gullible would-be suitor. She starts with acting like an innocent, virginal wife they expect her to be. Slowly letting go of the facade and confessing to the things that happen to her during the war and after. As if daring them to accept her after everything they just heard.
Special mention also has to be given to Andrey Bykov, who plays a sympathetic but rational doctor at the hospital the two ladies choose as a potential surrogate suiter. He knows when to give up and is not beneath taking the food rations of the patients he has given up on to serve others.
In the end, Masha and Iya are both doomed in their respective quests. The former, with her desire for a child or the need to have somebody inside her. And the latter with her need to be Masha’s master. Though they behave like star crossed lovers, they wouldn’t lose a second before ripping each other apart. Destined and doomed to be tied together even if they try to get away from each other. Like plants intertwined on a beanpole.
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