‘Beanpole’ takes us to Leningrad in 1945, the shell of a city devastated by World War II. Here we encounter Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), ex-soldiers trying to rediscover normality in the ashes of what once stood there. Director Kantemir Balagov punctuates the film with images so troubling that it becomes a daunting prospect early on, but with such texture and beauty it pulls you in regardless. This is an unquestionably bleak depiction of the trauma of war and discovering how to slot back into life when everything has crumbled around you.
Holding each other in their shoebox apartment, we feel how much each woman needs the other. Both leads embody the hidden fallout of war while maintaining the grace and levity of more seasoned performers – it’s amazing to think they’re both first-time actors, such are their chops and chemistry. Iya is the ghostly heart of the film, struggling with a post-war induced condition that leaves her freezing, disorientated and struggling for breath. A rare moment of warmth sees Iya playing with a little boy we presume to be her son, but the light is soon extinguished again in a moment of extended horror. Balagov has the confidence to fix unflinchingly on this tough moment. You’ll want to look away; he defies you to actually do it.
The central relationship conjures up uncomfortable questions around friendship and the blurring of lines during desperate times. Masha is spirited and energised, but behind the playfulness is a woman prepared to exploit her friend. The battle for control threatens to become bitter. ‘Beanpole’, crucially, is a female story. Its willingness to embrace the full complexities of their relationship make it essential viewing for those thirsty for richer stories about women. It pulls us in to take a closer look at the most uncomfortable circumstances; lingering on them in the moment but quickly sweeping them under the rug again. We can only imagine that like in war itself, when faced with the utmost horror, you have to brush it away to keep going.