“Polina” is undeniably about dance: A budding Russian ballet star rejects it all and runs off to join, or find, or create her own circus.
But the film is also a poetic coming-of-age story that speaks broadly to the challenge of self expression and the necessity of finding one’s own voice.
Directed by Valérie Müller and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, this Russian and French language film dives deep into the harsh reality of artistic life: What is success, and for whom does the artist struggle to succeed?
Young Polina’s story begins in Moscow; Her parents are poor but taking on extra work with shady characters in an effort to afford high-level ballet classes for Polina. She is not the star student.
The teenage Polina, played by dancer Anastasia Shevtsova, continues to struggle, but her stern-looking teacher Bojinski (the well-cast Aleksei Guskov) sees her perseverance and helps her prepare to audition for the Bolshoi Ballet, a symbol of Russia.
Curiously, the film skips any earnest, tearful “I made it!” moments, and zooms straight on to Polina being smitten with the forbidden fruit: contemporary dance, where the feet are bare and ballet’s strict nature does not apply.
She skips town with her boyfriend, Adrien (Niels Schneider), to try out for a contemporary company in France. There, the nurturing choreographer, played by a winning, messy-haired Juliette Binoche, is modeled after the renown Preljocaj and rehearsals were shot at his actual studio in Aix-en-Provence.
Polina’s choice to pursue a new path makes her a bold, but often unlikeable character: She’s moody, demanding and restless. She flits through Europe, winds up broke, sleeps in a laundromat and lies to her parents back in Moscow. But this is not “Cabaret”: She’s a joyless (and talented) Sally Bowles.
Things change when she meets Karl, played by Jérémie Bélingard, who in real life is a Paris Opera Ballet principal dancer used as a model for the choreography in the fall’s other dance film “Leap.” He teaches her to improvise. And she learns to be a choreographer along the way.
She creates a ballet that, without any congratulations or even a hand-shake, we’re meant to believe was accepted into an important festival.
Despite its minimalism, the film benefits from underlying themes that make Polina’s development as a person and dancer feel compelling.
Breaking away from the structure of ballet becomes even more of a heartbreak (to us, if not to this teenager) when her father accepts a risky assignment and faces intimidation by thugs — in order to support her now-unwanted ballet career.
Her time learning from instructors, even those she dislikes, deepens her experiences. And it allows us to see beautifully shot, meticulously broken down choreography in rehearsals.
Industrial-sounding music — hammers pounding, clocks ticking — often stands in for dialog, as Polina stares off, eventually losing herself in the chaos.
Geometric camera angles and clever use of mirrors help show the complexity of dance from a fresh perspective: This is certainly the first time the adagio variation from Act Three of “Raymonda” as been shot entirely overhead.
And it all adds to up elevate “Polina” into an artistic film that happens to be about dance, positioned well beyond the dance flick genre.
“Polina” is now in theaters throughout the U.S.