POLINA, drama, not rated, in Russian and French with subtitles, Center for Contemporary Arts, 3 chiles
Polina is a dance film that takes some unusual turns. Based on a graphic novel by Bastien Vivès, it begins by tracing the predictable trajectory of a young girl on the way to becoming a ballerina in the Russian tradition, starting with her first tryout, where she is stretched, prodded, and measured like livestock. Her mother and father make sacrifices in order for her to pursue a career in dance, and she is accepted at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. But something is off.
From the movie’s earliest scenes, as the young Polina (Veronika Zhovnytska) skips past huge smokestacks on her way home from class, and then stops to improvise animal-like moves and jazz steps in the snow, it is clear that she has her own dances, her own ideas. Polina has the ability to inhabit the shapes of classical ballet but also a need to express herself. As a teenager (now played by actress and former Mariinsky Ballet dancer Anastasia Shevtsova), she shows promise at the academy, is given solos, and stands up to the stern ballet master. Joining the corps de ballet of the Bolshoi Ballet is within her reach. Then she attends a performance of a French dance company offering a mix of modern, ballet, and Flashdance. It is her first glimpse of contemporary dance. When her boyfriend from the academy decides to travel to France to audition for the company, she tags along.
Juliette Binoche plays the Twyla Tharp-like choreographer in Aix-enProvence where the young lovers are cast as leads in a dance (the filmmaker and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj’s ballet Snow White). Binoche gives an impassioned performance and dances wonderfully in an extended sequence where she shows the dancers how it should be done. Binoche is a role model, but she is also harshly realistic to Polina about her strengths and weaknesses as a dancer. The young woman may say to herself, “Polina from the Bolshoi is over!” but it will take years to overcome the rigid training. During a period of recovery from an injury, she loses the role in the ballet as well as her boyfriend.
Polina travels to Belgium and finds herself alone. She gets a job at a bar, lies to her parents, and shares a room with a man she spots teaching dance to community members. With few words and a lot of camera movement, the movie follows Polina as she waffles around looking for what to do next. We see the creative responses she eventually makes that lead her on a new path. Polina may never rise to ballet stardom, but artistically she comes into her own in Antwerp far away from classical ballet, the Bolshoi, and everything she was raised to believe in. — Michael Wade Simpson
On point: Anastasia Shevtsova