Truffaut famously stated that there are no real anti-war movies. Indeed, war film as a genre inescapably fabricates patriotic heroes to praise and brutal villains to condemn, failing to indict war itself for its brutality. Furthermore, these films produce a disconnect between form and content. Even if the movie intends to shock the audience with the violent horrors of war, these “horrors” are inevitably aestheticized by the technical spectacle of the scenes, as evident in this year’s 1917.

However, Kantemir Balagov’s second feature Beanpole, a powerful portrait of two female soldiers returning from war in post-WWII Leningrad, avoids this problematic romanticization of war. The movie opens with a series of whimpers and soft choking sounds that remind one of an animal. We see the titular character, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed Beanpole because of her tall, slender body, in one of her paralytic episodes, her body frozen and her throat struggling for air. Discharged from the military early because of her PTSD symptoms, she now works as a nurse at a veteran hospital, surrounded by patients physically and psychologically broken like herself. 

In his debut film, Closeness, Balagov chose to include controversial real footage of anti-semitic violence to demonstrate post-war trauma realized. However, in Beanpole, he opts for a more nuanced way of depicting how survivors are rendered incomplete by war. The only time we see the veterans at Iya’s hospital is when they gather together to play with Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), a little boy whom Iya takes care of. When a man with only one arm gestures the motion of flying, Pashka has no difficulty guessing that he’s imitating a bird; in contrast, Pashka looks completely lost when someone barks like a dog, since all the dogs were eaten in the city. The war exposes not only a broken language system, but also how the objects they signify lose their meaning. It is with the intention of depicting wars that never end in people’s lives that Beanpole expands beyond the war genre’s vocabulary of patriotism and male castration anxiety to focus instead on the more neglected roles of women in war and female psychological trauma. 

However, the movie does not fall into the Beauvoirian trap of simply presenting women as victims, which oftentimes perpetuates existing gender binaries and hierarchies. In a similar way that T.S. Eliot was concerned with post-WWI spiritual sterility when writing “The Wasteland”, Balagov explores the outlook of post-war nations through the female protagonists’ fertility. The story begins with the return of Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who met Iya in the war and trusted her son Pashka with Iya’s care. When Pashka dies in a freak accident and Masha finds herself  infertile because of the war, Masha, who now conceives herself as empty and incomplete, obsessively pursues the idea of wholeness by forcing Iya into having a baby for her. 

The conflicts and desire between the two women are mapped out with breathtaking close-ups in which we can see every micro expression on their faces, punctuated by their gulps and ragged breaths. Under the facade of control and indifference both women put up, Balagov’s camera spells out their vulnerability and longing with remarkable honesty. Even though getting Iya pregnant seems to be Masha’s obsession, Masha’s facial expressions suggest otherwise in a perverse impregnation scene: Iya cries, and Masha looks even more pained than Iya. In so doing, Balagov implies that the key to becoming whole again as a country or culture does not lie in reconstructing nuclear families or returning women back to the home from the public sphere; people remain incomplete even if the begotten child is gendered male.

Balagov doesn’t invoke the image of Stalin or any other evil individuals in the movie as strawmen, but identifies war itself and the binary European history that caused the war in the first place as the direct causes of people’s suffering. The protagonists’ search for Platonic wholeness fails at the end of the story; nevertheless, the movie’s dynamic camerawork and focus on the materiality and movements of bodies lays the groundwork for a path to recovery. The movements of characters are followed by long, handheld shots — the camera tumbles, runs and shakes when the people onscreen do so, and it freezes with Iya’s body shutting down. Iya’s uncanny height is not an arbitrary character trait, but a powerful example of bodies’ ability to disrupt hierarchies. Balagov stages a scene where the director of the hospital visits veterans in an affected ceremony of handshaking and gift giving. A shift in power is present as the hospital director is forced to look up to meet Iya’s eyes in the lines of nurses welcoming her at the entrance. In another scene, two men waiting to take advantage of Masha and Iya on their night out would both be beaten up by Iya. Tall and awkward, Iya moves like a newborn pony learning to stand for the first time. The uncontrollability in her makes her seem more animalistic than human, more instinctual than rational; her connection to nature might be just the cure to European civilizations’ obsession with rationality and structure.

Moreover, in Masha and Iya’s relationship, Beanpole shows the expansive ways women desire, a potent intervention into the continual reiteration of the subject/object dichotomy. Masha and Iya’s  frenetic movements reach a climax in a scene where Masha tries on a new green dress. Among the maroon, discolored walls of their apartment and the grey architecture outside, vitality and dignity still find their place as the characters paint the walls green and Masha changes into green dress from her monotonous uniform. Masha is ecstatic when she spins and sees her dress fly; she laughs like a child, and she does not stop until she begins to cry. Iya approaches and kisses her, and she starts tentatively and gently, almost like a mother animal licking her young, which soon turns into her pinning Masha on the ground like prey. They struggle for breaths, for power in the relationship and control of their bodies, a passion that contrasts strongly with the functional heterosexual sex scenes captured with static shots. 

As the credits roll, the buzzing sound that occurs whenever Iya is paralyzed recurs. Beanpole feels like a two-hour trance that the audiences are unable to wake up from. Before the final scene of the movie, the camera follows Masha in a breathless run towards home to check on Iya, a run that makes one feel like nothing else matters except for the running itself. This is Jo March running with her book in the streets of New York in Little Women, and it’s what Heloise had dreamt of for so long as she runs towards the edge of the cliff in Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Despite the constraints of their environment, they never shy away from their desires and longings, and that promises them each a future.