(London Film Festival, October 3rd, 2019, Curzon Soho Cinéma, 99 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 5DY, England. Soho, 18:00 pm)
1945, Leningrad. 'World War II' has devastated the city, demolishing it's buildings and leaving its citizens in tatters, physically and mentally. Although the siege, one of the worst in history, is finally over, life and death continue their battle in the wreckage that remains. Two young women, Iya Sergueeva (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), search for meaning and hope in the struggle to rebuild their lives amongst the ruins.
On a surface level, "Beanpole" is a word that describes the physical attributes and outlook of the main hero, Iya, as she’s a very tall woman. Masha has scars, based on the injuries she suffered during the war and the operations that she had to undergo. But "Beanpole" is more about clumsiness and this is how the heroes feel and express feelings in the film, they're clumsy, they're learning how to live again after the war and it's very difficult for them. The story is based around the lives of two young women who've their whole lives ahead of them. A major focus in the film is their desire to reproduce. One of the film’s primary heroes chooses birth as a kind of medicine for her trauma. Iya believes that if she gives birth, then this new person will be able to cure them both. This is a very powerful creative decision that makes the story even more relevant today, to talk about the role of women in society. It allows us to retell a story about traditional 'PTSD' in a more dramatic and radical way. Until Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev), Sasha (Igor Shirokov) and Iya find the internal strength to rid themselves of war and of it's memories, it will continue. In the young women’s apartment, the precise texture of an authentic, historical St. Petersburg’s flat of that time is recreated. Every wall is covered by up to five layers of different wallpaper; from pre-revolutionary wallpaper to the pages of biological atlases depicting exotic birds.
Some of the materials used are actual historical wallpaper and not modern recreations. For later periods the film uses 'Soviet' newspapers as wallpaper. The film also uses authentic newspapers from 1942 to plug the holes in the windows of the girls flat as people of that period used to do. These newspapers are also use to make paper napkins for the 'New Year’s' scene at the hospital. They're placed on the patients’ bedside tables. It's very important that the story takes place in 1945. The heroes, like the city they live in, are mangled by a horrible war. They live in a city that has endured one of the worst sieges in the history of warfare. This is a story about them and about people they meet in Leningrad, the obstacles that they've to overcome and the way they're treated by society. They're psychologically crippled by the war and it will take time for them to learn to live their normal lives. The film is interested in the fates of women and especially women who fought in 'The Second World War'. This was the war with the highest participation of women. The film want to find answers to the question; what happens to a person who's supposed to give life after she passes through the trials of war? Out of this deep and intimate psychological drama grows a powerful metaphor about war; it never stops, even when the actual battles are over.
This film is based on the book 'The Unwomanly Face Of War' by 'The Nobel' Laureate Svetlana Alexievich. We know very little about the war and how little about the role of women in the war. What happens to a woman after the war is over, when there's a tectonic shift in her mind and her nature, a violation of her nature that would obviously take place afterwards. Leningrad is especially important as it's the city that survived this terrible siege, and the consequences of the siege played an important part in the film. It's vital to feel this space and background in the film, and you can feel it even now, in today's Leningrad (Saint Petersburg). There's not a single image of Stalin, Lenin or any other traditional communist symbols of the time in the film. The streetcars in "Beanpole" are authentic. They're a loan from 'The Museum Of Electrical Transport' in St. Petersburg. The challenge is to construct a special step outside of the streetcar, usually used by people without tickets who rode, just hanging on for dear life. Given it isn't possible to do in a museum exhibit, the film constructs a special contraption that damage the original step, but at the same time can support the weight of a dozen people. For example, in the scene where the patients in the hospital celebrate 'New Year’s, the decorations, thread with pieces of wadding threaded through, are recreated with historical accuracy by the prop-masters. During the post-war years, the patients who lost limbs in Leningrad’s hospitals had to design exercise equipment for physical therapy themselves. The close-up shots of injections in the hospital scene are shown in such a way that the design and manufacture custom-made foldable needles. To make the bandages look more authentic, the film soakes them in tea and dried them on radiators before shooting. This gave the bandages the appearance of having been washed multiple times.
"Beanpole" talks about war as a personal tragedy; this is a story of post-traumatic stress. We've seen similar films but almost all of them are stories of men whose lives were crippled by war, who come back to their normal lives and try to find their place in the world. "Beanpole" looks at the post-war world through women’s eyes. When we study the diaries of people who lived during that time, we learn that despite all the hardships and the devastation, they're surrounded by bright colours every day. This conflict between bright colours and the nature of post-war life is also very interesting. We feel the consequences of war in the space where the action takes place, and in the colour palette of the film. But most importantly it’s in the fates of our heroes. It's important to show the consequences of war through people’s faces, eyes, physiques, bodies, not just through abandoned or destroyed buildings. The fact that we live in a world where wars still rage, makes "Beanpole" a traditional story through powerful visual metaphors that create an intricate tapestry. The colour palette tells us more about the internal struggles of his characters than the words could ever do. Two colours, green and ochre, dominate the film. We see them in costumes, in interior design, even in covering shots. These colours give us both drama and warmth. They speak to us both about intimacy and a conflict with the world to which our heroes have much trouble adapting. Even though this is not a documentary, there's a natural authenticity to everything that we see and to all the actions the heroes make.
Everything takes place in a carefully reconstructed world where every little detail, from interiors to everyday objects, is authentic to the time period. But attention to detail doesn’t make "Beanpole" a period story. This is not a story about a historic period; this is a story about the world today. This is why the ages of the heroes, the way they act in front of the camera, even their clothes although authentic to the time period, look very modern and visually appropriate to contemporary filmmaking. The film combines true knowledge of classical cultural tradition with a voice of this generation. The true strength comes from a realization of the drama and cruelty of life. There's a deep affection and empathy towards the people who are trying to survive and overcome terrible obstacles. We've to understand the problems that the world faces today and also the hardships and cruelty. The film feels compassion to those who still suffer.