Mike Kennedy’s review published on Letterboxd:
A schedule clash at MIFF (5B and La Flor) meant I missed seeing this second feature from young (27 when he made this!) Russian writer/director Kantemir Balagov but I figured, correctly as it turned out, that having won the FIPRESCI Prize and the best director award in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes earlier this year, the film would get additional Melbourne screenings somewhere.
As with so many very good films, the bedrock here is the screenplay which Balagov co-wrote with Aleksandr Terekhov, inspired by the stories of Russian women in WWII revealed by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexeievich in her book The Unwomanly Face of War (1985/2017 uncensored). I often get pissed off at screenplays that, well after a character or characters has been established, drops in a piece of information that fundamentally changes how you view the character and the events that have gone before. Bagalov and Terekhov do this more than once, most notably in the "meet the parents" scene, but here that fits with the complicated way in which their story has been constructed.
You are pretty much into spoiler territory immediately you start trying to summarise the plot, so let's just say that it concerns the friendship of two young women, Ilya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who served together in the Russian army during the war and are reunited in a hospital for wounded soldiers in Leningrad in 1945. They are both damaged by their war experiences. Physically, Ilya has a form of narcolepsy which causes her to randomly become catatonic, while Masha has a very badly scarred abdomen which she tells a doctor at the hospital is the result of shrapnel wounds. Both of them also have deep psychological damage which will emerge as the story unfolds.
Early in the film, there is a tragic accident that both of them seem to shrug off, although it is the catalyst for much of what follows. It is never really clear whether their seeming casual acceptance of this event is a sign of their psychological dysfunction or whether the things they have experienced during the war were so terrible that this latest tragedy is a lower order trauma.
The film takes a while to get going and, at a two hour ten minute run time, I am not sure that the long establishing section is really necessary, although there are some wonderful scenes there such as the patients playing animal charades with the small boy or the visit to the hospital by the top brass. The scene with the inappropriately applauding and grinning shell-shocked soldier is an excellent example of Balagov's great skill at simultaneously providing a plot point, marshalling gallows humour, providing historical context, and undercutting the Stalinist military government.
The most interesting part of the film comes once the focus shifts to the codependent relationship between Ilya and Masha and the shifting dynamics as each strives for dominance. Thinking about this the next day, I am not really sure how to read what is happening here. While I was watching the film, I accepted at face value that this was about dominance in the relationship, in part at least because, at one stage, Ilya says to a third party, when explaining why she is still living with Masha, that she want to "master her".
However, it now seems equally possible that rather than a real struggle for dominance, these are games they are playing within the context of their codependent relationship. There were a few times when what they were doing reminded me of the sadomasochistic rituals that Solange and Claire enact in Jean Genet's play, The Maids (1947).
Sergey Ivanov's production design is stunning both in his recreation of the run-down, crowded hospital and the Leningrad streetscape with its dilapidated buildings and overcrowded trams. His use of colour - ochres and deep reds and greens (for example of Masha's dress) contrasted with the bleached out colours of Ilya with her translucent skin and white blonde hair and eyebrows - is particularly striking. There are multiple occasions where you could freeze the frame and cinematographer Kseniya Sereda's framing and lighting would yield a stunning image that is almost painterly. Stepan Sevastianov's sound design/editing is also excellent and makes very effective use of silence and ambient sound.
Miroschnichenko and Perelygina are remarkable in their debut film roles. The contrast between them fits neatly with the several dichotomies in the story arcs - Miroschnichenko is tall (hence "beanpole" but the word "dylda" in Russian also had connotations of ungainly and awkward), pale, blond and cool, while Perelygina is stockier, red headed, darker skinned and hotter temperamentally.
There was one unexpected and quite amusing addition to the screening. Well into the film, two women sitting a few rows in front of us on the right hand side of the Capitol leapt to their feet and one of them started waving her arm frantically over her head and pointing to the seat in front of her. I thought we might be having a medical emergency but no, the first Ilya/Masha kiss was happening on the screen. Mum was summoning the two late teenage daughters who were sitting together several rows behind us in the centre of the row. They reluctantly trooped down and Mum and friend proceeded to frog march them out of the cinema. "No lesbian hanky panky when my daughters are watching, thank you very much". The kids' embarrassment would not have been helped by the chuckles as other audience members picked up on what what going on.
I also missed seeing Balagov's debut feature Closeness at MIFF 2017 (those program clashes are a real drag) but will now see if I can track it down, as well as adding him to my young directors watchlist.