The title character in “Beanpole” is a thin, towering young woman named Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), with wary blue eyes and almost translucent skin, as if she were willing herself to disappear. Nor could a viewer blame her, for Iya is a nurse in a Leningrad hospital in the aftermath of World War II — a landscape in which a society tries to rise back to its feet and mostly fails.
Bleak as a Russian winter, “Beanpole” is the second film by the young writer-director Kantemir Balagov (co-scripting here with Aleksandr Terekhov), a fearsome, uncompromising talent who plunges us into a world without comfort. Iya, a sort of earthbound angel, fought in the war until a concussion got her mustered out, leaving her prey to eerie fugue states. Early in the movie, during one of those trances, something so awful happens that an audience may feel a frisson of panic in the knowledge that they’re unprotected.
Iya’s guilt over the Awful Thing becomes the event that warps her for much of the rest of “Beanpole” and that casts her as the submissive half in the relationship with her closest friend, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who has returned from the front seeking a reassurance Iya is unable to provide. Perelygina — like her costar a remarkable first-time actress — plays Masha as Iya’s opposite: diminutive, crafty, recklessly self-absorbed, and quite possibly insane. Not that anyone can tell here.
Balagov creates a devastated backdrop for the women’s power struggle. Of the two most sympathetic male characters, one is a soldier (Konstantin Balakirev) paralyzed from the neck down. The other is an exhausted head doctor (Andrey Bykov) whose weakness results in his being caught up in Masha’s demented scheme to bring new life into this wasteland.
Why would anyone want to do that? As “Beanpole” rolls inexorably on, Masha’s plan — and Iya’s tortured participation in that plan — brings the film to an edge of agonized surrealism. If nothing else can spring to life here, the colors do; Kseniya Sereda’s camerawork gradually highlights the reds and greens until the walls themselves seem to bleed. Balagov’s emphasis on the flesh — its sins and dimly recalled joys — brings an eerie jolt of eroticism to a film that’s otherwise as sexual as a graveyard.
Toward the end of “Beanpole” there’s a remarkable scene in which Masha is brought to meet the wealthy parents of a naive young suitor (Igor Shirokov), and the traumatizing truth about her wartime experiences comes out like a gauntlet thrown on the dining room table. (The boy’s mother, played with hardened elegance by Kseniya Kutepova, hints that even rich women experienced their share of disaster at the hands of men.) By now, the movie is floating into a fierce war of wills between Iya and Masha, one in which their locked stares gradually seem to become an eerie, eternal bond of sisterhood. They can’t look away. Neither may you.
Directed by Kantemir Balagov. Written by Balagov and Aleksandr Terekhov. Starring Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, Andrey Bykov, Igor Shirokov. At Kendall Square. In Russian, with subtitles. 137 minutes. Unrated (as R: violence, sexual content, language, brief graphic nudity).