The first sounds, over the black of the opening titles, are of tiny, gasping breaths catching in a throat. It could be a death rattle or an asthma attack or the last throes of a strangulation, but it is undoubtedly a human in distress. And it’s a very close analog for how “Beanpole,” the slow, ferocious, and extraordinary second film from blazing 27-year-old Russian talent Kantemir Balagov can make you feel. You quite often have to remind yourself to breathe.

These noises are coming from Iya (Viktoria Mironshnichenko), also known as Beanpole due to the almost freakishly tall figure she cuts, with her skin so pale, hair so fair, and eyes so huge under vanishing white eyelashes. She is experiencing one of her regular PTSD-related fits, frozen in place and dissociated, in the laundry of the overworked Leningrad veterans hospital in which she works as a nurse, in the months immediately following the end of World War II.

The shy, awkward Iya is valued by the kindly hospital administrator Nikolay (Andrey Bykov) and by her patients, especially Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev), who flirts with her cheerfully despite neck-down paralysis. The patients also get a kick out of Iya’s little son, Pashka (Timofey Glazkov): One-armed men mimic lopsided birds to amuse him, but when they try to get him to bark like a dog, he is mute. “How would he know what a dog is like?” asks one guy, reasonably. “They’ve all been eaten.” Still, life at home seems happy, if hungry, in their one room in a crowded communal building, with Iya a patient, doting mother, right up until she has one of her episodes while play-wrestling with Pashka and her dead weight is enough to smother the little boy.

For any regular cinema-goer, it can come as a shock to realize that we can still be totally annihilated by the projected moving image. Pashka’s death scene is one such reminder, a near-unbearable long take as the boy’s body wriggles its last beneath Iya’s unconscious form — one wonders what Jacques Rivette, famously so contemptuous of the filmmaking manipulations in Pontecorvo’s “Kapò,” would feel about the close-up of Pashka’s little fist, flexing in Iya’s hair until it doesn’t. But though Balagov proved willing to cross ethical lines for shock value in his otherwise impressive debut, “Closeness,” here the devastation is earned through nothing more gimmicky than exceptional directorial control and riveting craft. And the real story of the film has not yet even begun.

Though named after Iya, “Beanpole” is really a two-hander featuring her and the woman she loves, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), a returning soldier and, we discover, Pashka’s real mother. She had sent him to live out the war with Iya when Iya was invalided out of active duty. In Masha, with her slightly deranged smile, grief-induced cruel streak, and animal selfishness, the film finds its most dangerously provocative allegory for the moral apocalypse that is war.

“Beanpole” is incredibly bleak, but crafted with such care that it’s also deeply compelling. Events so disturbing that you long to look away are presented in images so striking that you cannot. DP Ksenia Sereda’s paradoxically warm, startling cinematography is full of exquisite, painterly compositions alongside Balagov’s now-trademark claustrophobic close-ups. Accents of deep turquoise and rich crimson are carried through from Olga Smirnova’s period-faithful yet highly expressive costuming to Sergey Ivanov’s immaculate production design. Even the scuffed walls of Iya’s apartment are a palimpsest of clashing wallpapers, evoking all the other lives lived within them. So though Balagov can be merciless with respect to his characters’ fates, his compassion for them shows through formally: While they’re being psychologically stripped bare, they are accorded at least the dignity of a beautiful, considered frame.

The performances, too, are exemplary, especially from the central pair. Scenes pivot around long, wordless gazes between them, and while perhaps there could be fewer of these (the film feels slightly overlong at two hours and 17 minutes), their rhythm makes sense: They last as long as is needed for Mironshnichenko and Perelygina to silently perform the enormous emotional zigzags that Balagov and Alexander Terekhov’s tightly knotted script demands. Iya and Masha do contradictory things, but these freighted, information-heavy stares rivet us to the minute ticking of their minds, the fragile beating of their hearts, so that their characterizations feel thoroughly consistent, if often breathtakingly perverse.

Twice Masha mentions “revenge” as her motivation for staying in the army as they marched into Berlin. This strikes a chilling note for anyone with a passing knowledge of Red Army atrocities during that final battle: The justification for the acts of mass rape, civilian murder, and property destruction by Soviet soldiers was often said to be revenge for the ravaging of the Russian countryside by the Nazis. It’s a tiny allusion in a film so densely allusive that multiple readings are possible, but in the context of the recent trend (not only in Russia) toward state-mandated historical revisionism and whitewashing, it feels acutely pointed.

But then “Beanpole,” which marks the undeniable arrival of Kantemir Balagov as a major talent, is a vision of postwar Leningrad as a place where a nationwide pall of guilt, grief, and despair permeates to the bone like Chernobyl fallout, manifesting in paralysis, sarcasm, suicide, and madness. It’s a city where people inflict horrible cruelties on each other, throw themselves in front of streetcars, and beg to be euthanized. Seldom have we seen such a powerfully pessimistic depiction of the absolute ruination that war can visit on the psyche of an entire nation. And yet “Beanpole” also displays a thin, pale vein of understanding, perhaps even admiration, for the broken people trying to rebuild amid the rubble of national identity, and learning that their internal maps — of gender, sexuality, morality, even humanity — are territories just as contentious as the borders of a shattered Europe in the fall of 1945.

Film Review: ‘Beanpole’

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 16, 2019. Running time: 137 MIN.

  • Production: (Russia) A Nonstop Production and AR Content production. (Int'l sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Producers: Alexander Rodnyansky, Sergey Melkumov.
  • Crew: Director: Kantemir Balagov. Screenplay: Balagov, Alexander Terekhov. Camera (color, widescreen): Ksenia Sereda. Editor: Igor Litoninskiy. Music: Evgueni Galperine.
  • With: Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, Andrey Bykov, Igor Shirokov, Konstantin Balakirev, Ksenia Kutepova, Olga Dragunova, Timofey Glazkov. (Russian dialogue)