It may be surprising to see a Russian film nominated for the Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, especially considering the country’s deeply conservative laws that effectively stop the financing of any films with LGBT themes. But director Kantemir Balagov, in just his second feature, has made something far more ambiguous, and dripping in queer subtext; a haunting tale of repressed emotion in the aftermath of the Second World War, where the conflicting desires of two women leads to a miserable, quasi-abusive relationship masquerading as a friendship. It’s a harrowing watch, unflinching in its portrayals of emotional brutality in all its forms, but a rewarding one nevertheless.
Taking place in Leningrad after Russian forces defeated the Nazis, the film follows two women who describe their relationship as a mere friendship, despite all their behavioural signs pointing to something deeper. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is the carer of Sacha, a young boy who is the son of her best friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina). They both served in the war, while both their partners remain in hospital because of battlefield injuries, but it’s Iya who seems to have had the largest emotional toll taken on her; due to an unexplained post-war trauma (or perhaps, merely removing the barriers stopping her forming a relationship with Masha), she smothers Sacha to death, the film never revealing whether this was an accident or not. Masha never raised a child of her own, and wants to become a mother again – but she’s unable to have another child, and instead sets sights on having Iya deliver a baby for her as she now “owes her life”, despite her clear discomfort with the concept.
At only 27 years old, Balagov has crafted one of the most aesthetically assured films of this year’s festival; he composes shots like a master of his craft, lingering on images both unsettling and mundane, finding a haunting poetry in both and all but daring you to try get them out of your head. The aforementioned smothering sequence is presented in harrowing extreme closeup less than 20 minutes in, fixating on Iya’s distress as she carries out the unforgivable act and never articulating why – but the cracked familiarity of returning to everyday life after serving in the war means that even less difficult concepts remain tough to sit through. As Masha decides to date a local boy in the hope of a miracle pregnancy, the deterioration of her mental state is depicted largely through unassuming visual cues, climaxing with the most traumatising sequence of a woman twirling in a dress ever captured on camera. It’s post war triumph transformed into pure mania upon realising what has been lost in the intervening years.
It could be argued that discussing the film’s queer subtext constitutes a spoiler, but the clear longing underneath the guise of a friendship is deadly apparent from the second the two actresses share the screen together. Masha refers to Iya using the affectionate nickname “Beanpole”, while Iya is overly protective of her friend and tries to circumnavigate her decision to pregnant by any means necessary – beating up the awkward horny teenager that Masha has practically forced herself upon in the hope of getting pregnant, seemingly out of an unspoken jealousy. When Iya starts being more forward to Masha, it comes across as emotional abuse, one woman either forcing another to feel affection, or one trying desperately to avoid a love that won’t give her the child she so desires. Miroshnichenko is absolutely captivating in the lead role, playing her cards close to her chest so her motivations can be read in a number of different ways, as well as articulating the internal screaming behind a post-war pride.
Beanpole (Дылда) is a striking sophomore effort from Kantemir Balagov, a bleak and unsparing portrayal of the desire for motherhood, repressed sexuality, and the traumatising effect of transitioning back to civilian life after time on the frontline. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s hard to argue against it being a rewarding one.