'Polina' ('Polina — danser sa vie'): Film Review

'Polina' film still - H 2016
Courtesy of Macao Film Festival
Impeccable technique, but where's the emotion?

This fiction feature about a young Russian ballerina co-stars Juliette Binoche and Niels Schneider and was co-directed by world-renowned French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj.

The dance is the thing in Polina (Polinadanser sa vie), an adaptation of Bastien Vives’ graphic novel about a young Russian ballerina who moves to France to pursue her dreams. This is the fiction feature debut from renowned French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, who here co-directs with screenwriter Valerie Muller, with whom he has previously collaborated on several documentaries.

The result is a film that takes dance as seriously as its protagonists and indeed, Polina contains several beautifully poetic moments that involve choreographed bodies against gorgeous backdrops. But this story of a little girl, classically trained in Russia, who finds herself struggling first with the tenets of modern dance when she arrives in France as a teenager and then has to fend for herself in Antwerp, Belgium. However, it isn’t neatly composed in three subsequent narrative movements (to match its location changes) but instead is a somewhat obliquely and messily told story of the particular growing pains of a dancer that lacks a clear enough emotional throughline that could serve as a narrative backbone.

That said, the name of Preljocaj should pique the interest of modern-dance enthusiasts and the fact Juliette Binoche, in a supporting role, plays one of the protagonist’s dance teachers certainly won’t hurt in terms of art house visibility. After it premiered at the Venice Film Festival earlier this year, it was released in French theaters this November and will have its Asian premiere as the opening film of the first-ever edition of the Macao Film Festival in December.

Veronika Zhovnytska plays Polina as a young girl, when her working-class Russian parents cannot believe their only daughter might be in line for training with the prestigious Bolchoi Theater Ballet. But after the teenage Polina (now played by Anastasia Shevtsova) sees a modern dance performance and starts to get butterflies in her stomach for debonair French dancer Adrien (Niels Schneider), she decides to follow him to France. There, the duo audition for illustrious modern-dance guru Liria Elsaj (Binoche), who happens to be based in Aix-en-Provence, where Preljocaj’s own ballet is based as well.

These first two acts contain many scenes familiar from countless other dance films, from the severe teachers — Aleksei Guskov plays Polina’s unsurprisingly demanding childhood teacher back in Russia — to the endless training sessions and rehearsals to the all-important auditions and performances. There are some striking visual scenes here, including an early solo dance outside in the snow against the backdrop of the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant. Some material about Polina’s parents has also reportedly been greatly expanded from the graphic novel, even if they still feel like very cliched characters.  

What is lacking is any nuanced sense of what Polina herself is going through. How does she deal with the constant physical and emotional strain? The continuous necessity for utter dedication? How does she feel about being far away from home and what exactly are her objectives in the first place? By the time she arrives in Antwerp (some spoilers ahead) she is forced to work at a bar to make ends meet rather than dance, and it is clear something has gone very wrong. But it is hard to tell what Polina thinks about everything that has happened to her in much detail, since she’s not the talking type and she doesn’t have anyone in whom she can confide. Quite the contrary, actually, because when she does speak, she’s typically reacting to the (mostly) bossy men around her, from her father and her teacher in Russia to Adrien, who takes her to France but then lets his eyes wander, to the handsome French choreographer (Jeremie Belingard) with whom she ends up sharing a lot of things, including an apartment in Antwerp.  

Visually, cinematographer Georges Lechaptois manages to find some new or unusual angles, filming one dance only from the rafters of the theater looking down while another only captures Polina’s pointe shoes in shallow focus, as each tiptoe on the wooden floor makes it creak and slightly give way. There’s some good use of handheld cinematography too, particularly when Polina arrives in Aix and studies under Liria. Binoche's character occasionally becomes an agitated, almost hazy blur of movement when she’s doing her own dancing, a clear contrast to the more restrained setups used for the scenes of classical ballet. The film’s electric score, by 79D, complements the shift away from classical material to something more contemporary, edgy and almost intangible.

Thankfully, Lechaptois and the editors aren’t fond of cutting much in the dance footage, so all the performances clearly were the result of lots of hard work from the actual performers rather than savvy editing. Quite the contrary, as both Binoche and Schneider have danced onstage in recent years (Binoche with Akram Khan and Schneider in a piece by Preljocaj) and Shevtsova is not an actress but a professional dancer now with the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theater. She acquits herself admirably, though she’s no match for veteran Belingard. The Etoile of the Ballet de l’Opera de Paris is not only the most impressive dancer onscreen who makes every move not look effortless but simply joyous, but he also impresses in the dialogue scenes and could easily transition into screen acting if he so desires.

Production companies: Everybody on Deck, TF1 Droits Audiovisuels, UGC Images
Cast: Anastasia Shevtsova, Veronika Zhovnytska, Niels Schneider, Jeremie Belingard, Juliette Binoche, Aleksei Guskov, Sergio Diaz, Miglen Mirtchev, Kseniya Kutepova, Ambroise Divaret, Oriana Jimenez
Directors: Valerie Müller, Angelin Preljocaj
Screenplay: Valerie Müller, based on the graphic novel by Bastien Vives
Producers: Didier Creste, Gaelle Bayssiere
Director of photography: Georges Lechaptois
Production designers: Toma Baqueni, Mila Preli
Costume designer: Jurgen Doering
Editors: Fabrice Rouaud, Guillaume Saigno
Music: 79D
Casting: Sarah Teper, Leila Fournier
Sales: TF1 Droits Audiovisuels

In Russian, French
108 minutes