Audrey Kupferberg: Beanpole
Beanpole or Dylda is a Russian feature film shot in St. Petersburg. It was theatrically released a little more than a year ago. It is available for home-viewing on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as on MUBI on Prime Video and Prime Video itself. It is the second feature directed by Kantemir Balagov, and he was still in his twenties when he co-wrote and helmed the production. Beanpole takes place in Leningrad in 1945 at the tail-end and end of World War II.
It’s about devastation, loss of hope, physical and mental disintegration. The two lead characters are young women who have been through hell, and are not back from it! They are Iya, or Beanpole as she is called, a very tall, very slim, washed-out blonde who is post-concussive, and her dear friend Masha who looks pretty healthy until seen naked. She has an ugly scar under her belly from a shrapnel attack that took out her reproductive organs. The two women served together as anti-aircraft gunners. Now they are aides and cleaners in a hospital for wounded, dying soldiers.
Iya, or Beanpole, may not have physical injuries, but her head wound causes her to freeze at times, unmoving, unaware of her surroundings, which inevitably leads to tragedy.
Each of the two female leads has a carefully-conceived character. Even though Beanpole’s brain malfunctions, she understands what she wants and does not want. She has a humane streak that prevails through the harm that war has done to her. Masha, too, knows what she wants, and she connives in a ruthless manner to achieve her self-interests.
The people of Leningrad are starving. Charities are making efforts to distribute whatever foods are available… a few eggs, oats. Women are so malnourished that they are having problems becoming pregnant with their newly-returned husbands. Leningrad appears grey and in need of a paint job. The cement covering parts of buildings has given way. The people and their homeland are damaged so badly that it’s difficult for a viewer to pore through this film without looking for some escape.
Balagov actually does find a few openings in his narrative for hope, for regrowth. Visually, he does so by choosing to add more and more bright grassy green to the film’s composition as the the plot moves onward. This brassy green begins to have a life, covering a party dress, parts of sweaters, the fireplace, walls. It’s a far-from-subtle touch, but hardly damages the overall quality of this film. The ending may leave some audience members wanting more. I accepted it because, after two hours of this film, I was completely wrapped up in the story.
This film is a winner. In fact, so far, Beanpole has had 66 nominations and 29 wins at festivals and various awards competitions. Barack Obama placed it on his favorite films list of 2020. What a promising career this young filmmaker has! Balagov was inspired to tell such a story by a 1983 book, War Does Not Have a Woman’s Face, by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich.
Beanpole is slow-moving, and some of the most disturbing scenes are presented in the most deliberate fashion. There are moments which deal with morbidity and death that may leave viewers distraught. But, when one thinks about the theme, how else can a filmmaker depict the horror that war produces and leaves in its wake without leaving audiences shaken and ashamed that such evil has occurred over and over through history!
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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