Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Beanpole: The Tall Thin Girl from Leningrad

It is the post-war Stalin years, when nearly all Soviets were thin and emaciated from malnutrition. Average comrades would stay that way for the next forty-four years, while the privileged apparatchiks enjoyed the fringe benefits of a classless society. Iya Sergueeva is definitely classless and ordinary. Only her tall thin frame and her brief bouts of catatonia distinguish her from the faceless proletariat. Even though the war is over, she will still suffer acutely in Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles and extends its New York run at Film Forum.

is inspired by, but not adapted from Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history, The Unwomanly Face of War. Na├»ve, suffering from PTSD, and probably somewhat on the spectrum to begin with, Iya is hardly even aware of Stalin’s existence, but the proof is in the poverty and privation all around her. Frankly, Iya is even less worldly than people assume, because her son Pashka is actually the child of her friend Masha.

There is an unspeakably heartbreaking tragedy less than fifteen minutes into the two-hour-plus film. Yet, the characters will have to soldier on, because they don’t have a choice, so the audience will as well. When Masha is demobbed, we start to get a sense of their relationship’s dysfunctional codependency. It might be emotionally unhealthy, but in Stalin’s Russia, you have to forge alliances to survive. For Masha, a bit of salt and some matches are a preferable substitute for foreplay, so she is handy to be close to.

This is a tough film, but a powerful film. Iya is the title character, but Masha is the true protagonist. She makes some highly questionable decisions, but she survives. In fact, the distributor really should have supplied to the Academy clips of Masha’s big scene explaining the reality of what it meant to be a woman “serving” in the Red Army, because it probably could have earned the Oscar shortlisted film an International feature nomination.

Vasilisa Peerelgina is absolutely riveting as the fierce but vulnerable Masha. Her big scene is a haymaker, but she also has plenty of quietly potent and poisonous moments. In contrast, Viktoria Miroshnichenko plays Iya with eerie detachment. Yet, it is not a one-note performance like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. She yearns for something to fill her emptiness and stews in her confusion and resentment when she fails to get it.

Women’s struggles and sacrifices are central to Beanpole, but Andrey Bykov perfectly personifies the era as the world-weary but still compassionate Dr. Nikolay Ivanovich. He also aptly represents the grizzled veterans who fought the Great Patriotic War, but were purged and replaced by apparatchiks who somehow survived the war without suffering any real hardships.

is an absolutely, unremittingly exhausting film that is clearly the work of a major new auteurist talent, who fully realizes his vision. The look and texture of the film vividly and tactilely reflect the Stalinist era, in all its grubby bleakness. Altogether, it is a profoundly sad and strangely electrifying viewing experience. Highly recommended for patrons of Russian cinema (in all its tragic glory), Beanpole opens this Friday (2/14) at the Landmark Nuart Theatre in LA and continues at Film Forum in New York.