Ded­i­ca­tion elu­sive for tal­ented ballerina

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - MOVIES - By Owen Gleiber­man

One of the defin­ing movie mo­ments of the past 40 years — a se­quence at once ridicu­lous, iconic and en­thralling — is the bal­let school au­di­tion cli­max of “Flash­dance,” in which the aspir­ing dance su­per­star played by Jennifer Beals prances and struts and gy­rates and, fi­nally, break­dances to the synth-pop glory of Gior­gio Moroder and Irene Cara, wow­ing the world of high­brow snoot and over­throw­ing it at the same time.

“Polina,” co-di­rected by Va­lerie Muller and An­gelin Preljo­caj, turns the mythol­ogy of that se­quence into a Euro­pean art film or, more pre­cisely, stretches it out into a teas­ingly aus­tere, de­lib­er­ately paced movie about a young Rus­sian ballerina’s progress from el­e­gant clas­si­cal drone to freespir­ited some­thing-or-other.

Polina (Anas­ta­sia Shevtsova) has grown up in a joy­less land of op­pres­sion, nu­clear power plants and oc­cu­pa­tional dead ends, and it’s her fam­ily’s dream that she’ll use her tal­ent as a dancer to as­cend. Her fa­ther, An­ton (Miglen Mirtchev), is some sort of gold chain-wear­ing shady op­er­a­tor who’s per­pet­u­ally in hock to the mob, which means that thugs will burst into his home — or trash it when he’s not around — to make sure that he pays his debts and does what he’s told. The movie treats this sit­u­a­tion as the essence of Rus­sian worka­day nor­mal­ity, as if he were a plumber. Both An­ton and his wife, Natalia (Kseniya Kutepova), want their beloved daugh­ter to tri­umph through dance, but it’s as if they were say­ing, “Es­cape from our world, be­cause it’s your only hope.”

Polina gets ad­mit­ted to a somberly pres­ti­gious dance school, and for a few scenes we see her as a coltish 8-year-old (played by Veronika Zhovnyt­ska) who comes un­der the tute­lage of one of those hard-driv­ing Balan­chinian drill in­struc­tors. The scowl­ing Bo­jin­ski (Alek­sey Guskov), who’s like a past-his-prime Ru­dolf Nureyev crossed with Tommy Lee Jones, sin­gles her out to give her a hard time (“You’re not very lim­ber”), MPAA rat­ing: PG Run­ning time: 1:48. In Rus­sian and French with English sub­ti­tles. Opens: Fri­day but, of course, that’s just be­cause he can see what ex­traor­di­nary po­ten­tial she has. The whole tra­jec­tory of a movie like this one is based on the au­di­ence’s de­sire to see a di­a­mond in the rough sculpted into a daz­zling jewel, and for a while it looks like that’s how it’s go­ing, es­pe­cially when Polina is ac­cepted into the Bol­shoi Acad­emy.

The co-di­rec­tor, An­gelin Preljo­caj, is a renowned French chore­og­ra­pher, and the fact that he shares di­rect­ing credit sug­gests the sort of dance film trance-out the film­mak­ers are go­ing for. “Polina,” based on a graphic novel, tries in its very form to mirror the con­tours of a dancer’s sen­si­bil­ity. There are lengthy stretches with­out much di­a­logue, and Anas­ta­sia Shevtsova, a dancer with the Saint Peters­burg Mari­in­sky Theater who in­vests Polina with a de­ter­mi­na­tion as free-float­ing as it is stub­born, is held up as a ripe vis­ual ob­ject for the au­di­ence’s con­tem­pla­tion. She re­sem­bles the young Meg Tilly, and her serene, roselipped beauty is pre­sented as a model-like mask that con­tains mul­ti­tudes of feel­ing.

Or, at least, that’s the idea. At mo­ments, “Polina” re­calls Robert Alt­man’s “The Com­pany,” which had a min­i­mum of di­a­logue yet lo­cated an in­vis­i­ble thread of ac­tion in a dancer’s habits, rit­u­als, glo­ries and calami­ties. It caught the in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness of move­ment and life. “Polina” doesn’t have the crafts­man­ship to pull that off. The film is in­trigu­ing on the sur­face, but the scenes have no in­te­rior hum be­cause they haven’t been con­ceived psy­cho­log­i­cally.

What pro­pels the movie is a kind of high-vs.-low, clas­si­cal-vs.con­tem­po­rary, bal­let stu­dio-vs.street iconog­ra­phy. Just when she’s sup­posed to be hun­ker­ing down at the Bol­shoi Acad­emy, Polina cuts and runs. She has an af­fair with one of her class­mates, Adrien (Niels Sch­nei­der), a sexy French dancer who looks like Michelan­gelo’s David, and she de­cides, for no good rea­son, to fol­low him to France. Or does she have a good rea­son?

Polina leaves her bal­let ca­reer in the dust be­cause it bores her, and maybe that’s rea­son enough. Yet she still yearns to dance, so she joins Adrien at a mod­ern dance school in Aix-en-Provence, run by an in­struc­tor played by Juli­ette Binoche, who’s crit­i­cal of Polina be­cause she’s so rigidly trained. Binoche, all too briefly, gives the movie some dra­matic snap, and we, of course, want to see her loft Polina into the strato­sphere of ma­jes­tic move­ment. But the thrust of “Polina” is that its hero­ine needs to fall from grace be­fore she can rise.

She keeps mess­ing up and flak­ing out, aban­don­ing Binoche’s school the same way she did the Bol­shoi, be­com­ing a cock­tail wait­ress in a punky dive in An­twerp, Bel­gium. It’s all sup­posed to be be­cause she’s now lis­ten­ing to her in­ner voice. Yet if only the au­di­ence felt con­nected to that voice. “Polina” is vivid as dance but vague as drama. Polina hooks up with a crew of street dancers and im­pro­vises a num­ber to the EDM sounds of 79D, fling­ing her long legs around in a style that sug­gests bal­let gone wild. By the end, you see the road she’s taken and why she had to go there, but it’s a road viewed al­most en­tirely from the out­side. You may se­ri­ously end up wish­ing for the com­par­a­tive in­ner jour­ney you got — yes — in “Flash­dance.”


Anas­ta­sia Shevtsova plays a trou­bled Rus­sian dancer in “Polina.”

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