To prepare for catching Kantemir Balagov‘s Beanpole in Cannes (Un Certain Regard), last night I watched his 2018 film Closeness (Tesnota) on a Russian streaming site. At a cost of $5 and change, which I was actually charged twice for. English and Spanish subtitles included.

Undeniably grim, powerful and penetrating. A nominal kidnapping saga in the gloomiest small Russian town you could ever imagine, but the focus is mainly on family (a tight-knit Jewish community), despair and resentments. A grim but highly believable milieu. Stark realism gives way to stark miserablism. In many ways convincing, riveting, pause-giving. Very claustrophobic with what felt like too many suffocating close-ups (what a horrible place to live!) but that’s Balagov’s intention, his way of making you feel it. Which I respect.

I believed every minute of it, but the lethargic places it took me to. It left me feeling drained and numb, and saturated with a downish vibe. But with an eye-opening performance by lead actress Daria Zhovner, for sure.

At 118 minutes Closeness seems to drag on longer than necessary. A few scenes don’t seem all that essential to the narrative — they’re basically about Zhovner’s interior life — her feelings of indifference, nihilism. The “taut story tension aesthetic” certainly isn’t upheld start to finish. And that horrible Chechen-Russian snuff film footage from that infamous 1999 Tukhchar massacre. I’m not likely to ever forget the sight of a young Russian solder screaming for his life, and then…I can’t describe it any further.

Overall this is a tough, commendable film, but the despair overwhelms. That’s the basic idea, I realize — this is a story about a community stuck with themselves in more ways than one. Serious respect, not much affection.

Balagov is certainly a director to follow and keep in my sights. When the final scene cuts to black a cryptic message appears: “I don’t know what happened to these characters after that.” I feel that Closeness would have been more engaging if the static or flaccid parts had been excised and the running time reduced by 15 or 20 minutes. It seemed as if Balagov didn’t really need 118 minutes to achieve what he was getting at.