Beanpole – Framing a bleak World War drama

Cannes #1 - Beanpole movie - An essay on understanding how the Russian film captures the essence of life though a captivating film making and apt use of profound silence.

Beanpole, the second film by the young Russian director, Kantemir Balagov, is a story set in the aftermath of World War II. It won the best director award under the ‘Un Certain Regard’ category. Naturally, the expectations for the film faring well in Cannes got me excited. It was the official Russian film to enter the 92nd Oscars.

As the title card roles in, we hear a continuous heavy panting voice behind the screen. A woman’s face surfaces from the darkness. She isn’t looking at the screen. She stares at something that is beyond our viewpoint. She doesn’t blink her eyes even after a few seconds. The panting is consistent, and she seems frozen. Another woman comes near her and confirms our doubt of something being wrong with the woman.

Pashka - Beanpole
The child Pashka – Couldn’t imagine how that little boy showed a brilliant acting on screen

She calls the freeze as post-concussion syndrome. After an uneasy minute or two, she comes back. She starts breathing and begins to move her eyes. And within a few seconds, everything around is normal. Women are working in a hospital seeing around the patients in their beds. 

The plot is set in Leningrad, 1945. Iya, the frozen woman from the first scene, is an attending nurse in a hospital. She is the Beanpole, as her friend Masha calls her. She lives with her son Pashka. She caters to the need of the wounded soldiers admitted at the hospital thanks to their participation in the war. Pashka spends time with a maid at home.

Beanpole

However, with no money and all trouble caused by Pashka, Iya now has to take care of her son. She takes him along to her workplace. The boy spends time with the soldiers. Or rather, the soldiers spend their time with the boy. They make jokes with the boy and enjoy the sheer beauty of life by being young and innocent.

Beanpole, by the way, means a tall, thin person in Russian. And true to the title, she stands tall for the entire length of the movie. She looks taller than everybody else in the film. Every longshot and every extreme closeup of her reveals the stark physique of her body. She towers everyone else while traveling in a tram. She towers people walking beside her, and her face is distinctly visible in every group shot.   

Just as every tall person is, she stoops down her shoulders. Her stature does reveal not only her physical weakness but also the hidden traumas within. It is not that her body feels heavy that she bends so low almost every time you see her on-screen, but the sufferings her heart reminds her in the mere act of living are so heavy. It is, in fact, the collective trauma of Russia, a country that sacrificed too many people in its fight against Narcissism. The film, in a way, just lets us a chance to move around the harsh reality that existed at those times.

Beanpole- Iya
Iya, the Beanpole. Notice how she stoops down . . .

Iya spends her home time with her son. While playing along, she accidentally kills her son as she gets her freezing post-concussion syndrome while hugging him tightly. A few days later, Masha, her friend, gets into the picture. She is back from the war, where she served as an Anti-aircraft gunner. She is full of excitement as she finds Iya and shows her the presents she has for Iya and Pashka. The prolonged silence of Iya makes Masha understand that Pashka is no more. Their conversation makes us understand that Pashka was Masha’s son born at the frontline and growing under Iya until her return.

Complications

Beanpole, the movie, is full of sadness and perplexions. The characters feel unreal, and the whole plot is nothing but a loose rope hanging in the middle of the air. But, the film, just like Iya, stands tall exactly because of this. The film doesn’t pose any questions or give us a mind-bending plot to remunerate on later. But it just showcases the life after the war in its sheer plainness. It dedicates itself to the silence after the storm.

The scene where Iya’s (Masha’s) son dies is a brilliant piece of film making. It is both horrific and, at the same time, patiently executed that it seems so real on-screen, and we feel so tensed that we couldn’t get to the other end and lend a helping hand. That particular shot is the best-executed scene of the movie, hands down. 

The story then moves around the lives of these two women who now live together with so much inexpressible pain. Both of them go ahead with their daily routine as though nothing much has happened. Yet their faces simply reflect the trauma beneath. Balagov has tried to convey the emotional conflicts that resided after the war in people’s minds through their daily activities. And, in my opinion, he has achieved it in a distinctive sense.

The lives of Masha and Iya project the general problematic lives of the Russian women. Though The men seem to be the most destroyed people in the war with their direct participation, it’s the women who suffer in the long run. With no father to rear their children and the source of income solely depending on their jobs, the lives of the women were hell. 

The opposites

Masha keeps smiling while Iya maintains the sternness throughout. If Iya is on the North Pole, then Masha is at the extreme South. There is solely one scene where we see Iya smiling wholeheartedly (pardon me if I am wrong). On the contrary, Masha is depicted as a person who has that smiling face in every single shot. In reality, when you feel so sad about the losses of Masha than Iya, you witness a different reflection on the screen. Masha smiles throughout while Iya always feels sorry for her actions. 

The opposite poles - Beanpole
The contrasting representation of Masha and Iya. One smiles unusually while the other remains grim always.

The plot of Beanpole is neither simple nor complicated. It’s plain treatment, and lack of focus even frustrates the viewers at various sections of the movie. A scene from which the film should have been pretty interesting ends abruptly in the middle (The death of the boy). Scenes that seldom needed a few minutes’ presences last for several minutes (The prolonged nude shots and the silent stares between the two women). The problem or rather the frustration with the movie is the time it runs for. Running for a little more than two and a quarter hours, it fails to focus on a single predominant story that could hold the viewers’ attention. 

Magic

Despite its plotlessness, If I could use that word, the film wins purely based on chord-hitting. As I mentioned before, it is quite plain and unsophisticated. The film’s prime intention (if any) is to walk us through the post-war Russian soil with a couple of girls. And with the tour of the girls, the viewers could understand the presence of trauma and the sadness in every character they meet along. The pure magic of Balagov lies in making the actors understand the need just to act and not to react. That makes this film even more taunting.

The story then walks through many elements, which make a point of understanding the trauma much clearer. The hidden pain beneath Masha’s smile and the blunt expression of the strain burning in every move of Iya are not the only ways we find sorrow. The soldiers who smile with a broken arm and missing eye, the doctor who feels the pain when asking Iya to kill his patients after getting their approval. The loveless exchange between an invalid soldier and his wife – all point to the imminent presence of sorrow that the people don’t even bother to consider. They have grown to live with it. Seeing a person next to them die gets usual for them. Not crying for a child’s loss is deemed to be normal. 

The drastic changes that the war left behind are irreparable damage. They take ages and generations to heal. 

Best Film?

What makes Beanpole one of the best directed movies of recent times? There are five main aspects I would like to consider here.

  1. Characterization
  2. Colors
  3. Silence
  4. Hidden trauma
  5. Framing

Characterization

The characters of Iya and Masha are so unreal and unpredictable. I could never predict the emotion of Masha when she smiles, usually after a testing conversation. Reading her mind is impossible. The same goes for Iya. She never cries in situations that demand her to cry. Rather, she cries in places where you never expect her to. Ther characters of Balagov define a unique viewing experience in a plot that has nothing concrete to hold the viewers on to.

Silence

There is a heavy dose of silence sprayed throughout the movie. It adds a fulfilling metaphorical layer that provides an aesthetic essence to the film. The mocking silence from Masha where u=you expect a person to react is the strangeness that shapes the styling of Balagov. I am looking at this young potential who is to make some strange movies in the future. 

Beanpole scene
A scene from Beanpole – The warm yellow spreads throughout the screen. The silence give a deep effect in this scene

Framing

One other exquisite difference that I felt in this movie is the framing. The camera mostly went away from the characters to give us a medium perspective. Many shots go back whenever a character’s emotion changes (The midframe shot of Iya when she laughs the only time in the movie). It gets closer to the faces during those silences and when the eyes are resting away from conversing. A beautiful scene where a dog was shown at a close up for a few seconds when it was just walking and at a long shot when it started barking, is a fine example.

There is also this long shot when the soldiers ask the boy Pashka to bark like a dog. One soldier responds by saying that no dogs are left alive for the boy to have seen one. And the other one starts laughing. One of them barks like a dog to show Pashka. Every one of the above actions happens with a single long shot. 

Hidden Trauma

Trauma is the hidden magic that Balagov has believed blindly to work for the movie. He has delivered a brilliant execution on that front that holds up to a simple plot. The representation of the pain in such simple, effective, and unexpected forms define the quality of this movie. He makes a soldier say that there are no dogs left alive and shows a pure white dog boldly walking with its rich master. The sheer reality of the poor and rich at the times of wars is beautifully expressed with those hidden nuances. If analyzed further, the film delves deep into the structuring strategy that helps Balagov put forth a great movie. 

Beanpole-pashka-soldeiers
The scene where the soldiers ask Pashka to bark. The whole sequence plays on a single long shot.

Colors

The entire movie is splashed with a severely harsh warm tint. The grained look of the film creates a wavy sensation even when a scene is completely static (By the way is very rare. Almost every scene has a hand-held shot feeling). Cinematography (done by the 24-year old Kseniya Serada ) lights up every character’s emotion brightly. Every war film ever made gets a monochromatic grey tone to represent the darkness within. Beanpole attacks those morals with a warm and harsh tone. The colour gives a whole new feel to the story in motion.

The characters feel sadness in a happy mood. In general, yellow is considered a happy color. Is Balagov trying to convey that life can be seen from a more joyful perspective? Howsoever happy the setting seems to be, the story in action is entirely bleak. Yes, bleak is the right word. Do you feel the contrasting colour tone has a much stronger point to mention? Do comment the same, and this could lead to a healthy conversation.

Understanding Beanpole

Understanding war from a third person is very difficult. It is impossible to express the pain and trauma faced by the people who were present in the war by people who just re-imagine it. But Beanpole tries it wholeheartedly. The realness that this film demonstrates is hard to ignore. Though it doesn’t intend to question anything or preach a moral message, it gives us a small hint to think about our past and pave a different future. It is possible without learning from our past. It is hard to believe that a movie of such profound quality revolving around the theme of war comes from a young 28-year old. 

This post is a tribute to all the soldiers from various countries who participated in the war and lost a great chunk of their precious lives on the 75th Victory day celebrations of Russia. The impact of the war still resides in the states of Germany and Russia. The scars of the war forever decorate the lands of Europe. Our current generation must understand the impacts of war and look ahead at a future with better hopes. Maybe, that is an intended layer of Beanpole. 

Beanpole- poster

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