Beanpole (2019): Kantemir Balagov’s Mesmerizing Russian historical melodrama

Genius filmmaker Kantemir Balagov directed Beanpole, a mesmerizing Russian historical melodrama about two women whose pasts and fates intertwine on the battlefield of WWII.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)
Viktoria Miroshnichenko in the Russian movie 'Beanpole.'

Viktoria Miroshnichenko in ‘Beanpole’ Courtesy of Kino Lorber

The film premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where Balagov won the Best Director Award and the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Film in that series.

The tale begins in Leningrad after the end of WWII, focusing on two women, Iya Sergueeva, a tall blonde woman nicknamed “Beanpole” (played by Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (played by Vasilisa Perelygina).

Iya suffers from a PTSD–she involuntarily freezes up while working as a nurse in a hospital under Dr. Nikolay Ivanovich (Andrey Bykov).

While caring for her son Pashka in a Communal apartment, she accidentally smothers him to death when she suffers one of her severe episodes.

Shortly afterwards, Masha, back from the front, makes the shocking revelation that Pashka was not Iya’s child, but hers; she had given him to Iya for safekeeping.

Bitter yet unfazed, Masha invites Iya out dancing, though they soon find that the dance hall is closed due to the war. Sasha, the young son of a wealthy local official and his friend noticed the girls and introduce themselves, eventually drinking and talking in Sasha’s car. Masha orders Iya out of the car to go on a “walk” with Sasha’s friend so Masha can have sex with Sasha in the back seat. Iya attacks Sasha’s friend when he attempts to seduce her, and beats Sasha over the head when she finds him having sex with Masha.

The next day, Iya notices Masha’s Hysterectomy scar and Masha tells her that she wants to have a child to heal her.

Masha soon applies to work at the same hospital as Iya, revealing to Dr. Ivanovich that she and Iya served together in an anti-aircraft gun crew but Iya was eventually discharged after suffering a traumatic head wound, while Masha continued serving.

Meanwhile, the wife of a paralyzed WW2 soldier, Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev) finds her husband alive, despite having already told her children that he had been killed in the war. Stepan cannot bear the idea of returning to his children as a Quadriplegic and, alongside his wife, begs Dr. Ivanovich to euthanize him.

Ivanovich eventually relents, asking Iya to do the job and indicating it will be the “last time.” Iya hesitantly injects Stepan with a fatal dosage of Morphine, smoking a cigarette for him and blowing it into his mouth until he dies.

Masha uses this case of illegal euthanasia as blackmail against both Iya and Dr. Ivanovich, and devises a plan in which Iya will be impregnated by Dr. Ivanovich, with Masha raising the child as her own.

Masha reminds her that she is “owed” a child from Iya after she let Pashka die in her care. Dr. Ivanovich also agrees, and the two have sex next to Masha in bed.

Masha continues to see Sasha afterwards, frustrating Iya, who seems to have feelings for Masha. Iya soon finds out that she is not actually pregnant, and instead just had a late period, but she neglects to tell Masha. While trying on a dress for their seamstress neighbor, Masha begin to twirl repeatedly while suffering a mental breakdown. Iya calms Masha by kissing her. Masha initially fights her off but Iya suffers another paralytic episode, during which Masha kisses her in return. Later, after an argument in which Iya orders Sasha to stop coming to their apartment with food, Sasha invites Masha to meet his parents. Iya, distraught, walks to Dr. Ivanovich’s house and tearfully begs him to sleep with her to successfully impregnate her. Dr. Ivanovich turns down her advances, but invites her to come with him and leave the city.

Masha visits Sasha’s parents at their large estate, but receives a cold response from them, as  they consider her an “army base wife.”

Masha says that she did it in order to survive, sleeping with soldiers capable of providing for her. Masha reveals that her abdominal scar was not caused by a combat injury as she first described, but from abortions she had on the front lines. She asserts that she loves Sasha, and will have a child, given to her from Iya.

The tale ends on an ambiguous but satisfying note: On the way home, Masha’s tram hits and kills a tall blonde on the street. Fearing the worst about the casualty’s identity, Masha runs home, and finds there Iya sitting alone.