'Beanpole' Review: An Unflinching, Unforgettable Experience [Cannes]

Kantemir Balagov's bleak, brilliant Beanpole tells a very different story about the aftermath of the Second World War than what we're used to seeing. Few countries were more violently affected than the Soviet Union, and this tale of the effect on the postbellum populace does justice to the scars left by the conflagration. The result is an emotionally shattering portrayal of two women and their struggles to adjust to their civilian lives.In Leningrad, a city that saw a massive siege at the hands of the Germans, we meet two characters in the months after the war with the same kind of emotional pressure exerted on them long after the troops have gone home. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is the titular character, dubbed "beanpole" because of her tall and lanky form. When we first see her, it's as if her programming has crashed – her head nods, and squeaking noises emerge. We learn it's the result of a wartime trauma, a kind of shell shock that results in these seizure episodes.She's in care of Masha, a young, precocious boy that hangs out with Iya at the clinic where she works treating soldiers who have also been ravaged by conflict. Further tragedy befalls Iya, and when her friend Maya (Vasilisa Perelygina) returns, at first the two try to forget the horrors together, setting out on the town to find whatever spark of humanity remains in their recovering city.Balagov's story is relentless, and the narrative's twists and turn shock throughout. Yet despite all this, there's never a sense of gratuitous brutalism. The unflinching eye is sympathetic to these flawed, fascinating women, individuals whose storylines are so often relegated to the margins of history books (if articulated at all). Given all the thousands of films on the effects of war, particularly World War II, there are none quite like this, sure evidence of just how original and powerful this film proves to be.Maya's journey in particular fascinates, and there's a bravura scene involving a dinner party that elevates this film from being quite good to being truly world class. It's a moment handled with such exquisite delicacy that one's head is left spinning at the moves and counter moves.Rarely are characters so well drawn, their histories so effectively worn on their sleeves, as Maya and Iya. The tall/short contrast is common in pairings – Abbot/Costello, Tahei and Matashichi from Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress that influenced R2-D2 and C-3P0 from Star Wars – and this often-comedic trope is toyed with in Beanpole's pairings in many of the lighter scenes. Yet when the film veers towards the dark, the contrast is further stretched out, resulting in individuals with extensive commonalities and fascinating differences in how their bodies and minds have coped with trauma.Beanpole is a daring, deeply effective look at events almost too tragic for drama, yet presented here with an exquisite eye for detail and deep humanity exhibited by the performers. Balagov's vision is redemptive, certainly, but it refuses the easy route, making audiences confront the deepest recesses of human suffering. It's a film of horrors, not a horror film, and its emotional rawness and provocative narrative choices make it an unforgettable if challenging experience./Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10