See Polina, Prepare to be Mesmerized

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Polina—a film co-directed by Valérie Müller and husband French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, soon to be released in the US (August 25)—is a mesmerizing mix of movement and life. The film stars professional Russian dancer Anastasia Shevtsova (of the Mariinsky Ballet) as Polina—a role for which she had to learn how to act and speak French. It also features the human magnet known as Juliette Binoche, who it turns out is not only an actress but a dramatic contemporary dancer as well (best known for her collaboration with choreographer Akram Khan in a work of dance theater called IN-I.)

Adapted by Müller from the graphic novel by Bastein Vivès, the film begins with Polina as a child (Veronika Zhovnytska), living in the frigid, bleak, snow-covered landscape of Russia. She is just beginning to study ballet under the tutelage of a semi-tyrannical dance teacher, at the urging of her adoring father who envisions her one day as a prima ballerina. Polina‘s family is poor, she’s the only child, and her father appears to take on some dubious work—smuggling perhaps?-- to pay for her lessons.

Polina works as hard as she can to inhabit the form, doing well enough to advance. But what she’s achieved in form she lacks in passion, which lies elsewhere. As to where, we get a hint as we watch her make her way home at dusk after ballet class one night, through the cold and empty industrial streets. To a gripping blast of electronic music, she becomes a blur of flailing arms and marching feet, kicks and spins and undulations, clearly in love with contemporary dance before she even knows what it was.

You’d think that being accepted by the Bolshoi ballet would be the pinnacle for a young woman who has been dancing classical ballet from childhood, but it isn’t. She turns the Bolshoi down, deciding instead to accompany a fetching young man, Adrien (Niels Schneider), another dancer, her first lover, to France. She’s seen her first contemporary dance performance, a visceral, erotic duet, and she’s hooked. Adrien is off to France to audition for a contemporary dance company there. He’s not sure her coming with him is a good idea. She tells him she’s going, no matter what.

In France Polina meets Liria (Juliette Binoche), a choreographer whose company is holding the auditions. Liria’s part in Polina’s life is short (in movie terms, way too short—we want more), but influential. She ushers Polina into contemporary dance by accepting her into the company on a trial basis and then tosses her out. Liria makes it clear that while Polina’s technique might work for contemporary dance—she’s able to adapt to the grounded movements, the low center of gravity, the jolts, the slams—her dancing has no heart. “I don’t feel anything,” says Liria, of watching Polina dance, especially when she’s dancing with Adrien. Liria wants a “duet of desire.” She wants to see urgency; she wants to see “longing.”

In fact, this whole film is about longing, about how strong a driver of our dreams longing is. Polina is single-minded in search of something, somewhere, that has to do with her body, with movement. Beyond that, she’s doing what she asked her mother, distraught over Polina’s rejection of the Bolshoi, to do: trust.

Polina leaves Adrian because he won’t dance with her enough, because he’s holding her back. She already left home. For one night, she’s actually homeless. She does begin to find her way with a charismatic dancer and choreographer she meets on the street, Karl (Jérémie Bélingard, a star of the Paris Opera Ballet). Karl teaches kids through dance improvisation. We see Polina agree to participate reluctantly, at the urging of others, rising from the floor to dance alone. This time, she dances whatever comes to her, creating, inventing. Her body flies.

I really wanted to see that whole dance, her body head to toe in every movement. But through the early part of this film, you see mostly just pieces, of dancers and the dance. When Polina catches Liria dancing, choreographing, lost in the ecstasy of movement, we never view Liria (Binoche) in full, though we long too. We see her arms, her torso, as she slips in and out of view; we see the ecstasy registered on her face.

At other times, the focus on the elements rather than the whole works dramatically, as with the magnification of Polina’s feet in her pink satin toe shoes. The shoes look menacing as they take up the whole screen. As she steps, lifting and dropping her feet on the wooden floor, it sounds as if those toe shoes are made of metal. You feel the heft of them, the danger they pose, which becomes real when Polina’s foot falls sideways, ankle bending, looking as if it might break.

Not until the end of the film—when Polina has decided she will no longer dance someone else’s vison but will become a choreographer and create her own—do we see a her and Karl’s complete bodies, in a complete dance. It is a gorgeous dance, on a stage lit to look like night in the forest of her childhood, with snow, on the ground, falling. It’s hypnotic.

The film’s power as a film aside, Polina is important because it is a rare fictional story of a young women’s restless and relentless search for her own form of artistic expression. Still, it does have shortcomings. The film is way too literal at times. When Polina first has sex in a dressing room amidst layers of tutus, Adrien has to get at her though some white netting. After Liria tells Polina that she is too self-obsessed, that an artist’s job is to observe, Polina way too obviously observes people’s movements in a subway station—a homeless man under a coat crawling desperately towards her, two friends in a jubilant, unnecessarily twisty embrace—which we’re to assume she will creatively employ.

That contemporary dance piece that seduces Polina to leave ballet actually is drawn from a full length dance production by Preljocaj called Snow White (which had its New York premier in 2014 at the David H. Koch Theater). The borrowed piece is a duet wherein the barely dressed female dancer-- wearing what one critic aptly described as “a diaper” --is flung madly about by her male partner, coming back repeatedly for more. It was jarring in a way, given what had come before—there is a certain modesty to the film, in the way the female dancers dress. But the duet did do the job of changing the mood dramatically, from the traditional to the modern world.

Unfortunately, Shevtsova isn’t about to win any acting awards. Apparently, the challenge for the filmmakers was to find an accomplished ballerina, contemporary dancer, and actress rolled into one. Shevtsova is a wonderful dancer and projects mystery well, but she had too little dialogue and too little range as an actress to give her any depth. We never know what’s going on inside her head. It also would have helped if narrative loose ends had been tied up, for example: How long was Polina’s beloved father gone after he agreed at gunpoint to do the bidding of one of his mysterious customers, and what impact did that have on Polina?

Finally, the last frames of the film were somewhat ridiculous. Suffice it to say they had to do with an elk. The end should have been that dance of Polina and Karl in the night, the forest, the cold and the snow, that dance that set the stage on fire. That’s the image that remains.