Review: 'Polina'

New Franco-Russian film dances through life
The Franco-Russian film 'Polina' follows one dancer's difficult journey through Eastern Europe.

A sensitive friend I have is unable to look at bonsai trees. The thought of the wires binding the roots, to make the plants dwarves, causes him pain. How much worse is ballet, though, the molding and posing of young girls to bind them for the dance. Watching this training, seeing young girls grabbed by the chin to push their heads up, their backs forced roughly into perfect position, gives the lovely and meandering Franco-Russian production Polina some weight. Based on a French graphic novel, it follows a ballet dancer from a grim youth submitting to a rigid tradition, to avant-garde freedom.

At best, co-directors Valerie Muller and Angelin Preljocaj visualize this journey well. (And it sure beats Black Swan.) It begins in a shabby Moscow neighborhood near the five steaming cones of a power plant; each cooling tower, in a tragic attempt at decoration, is painted a different fading pastel color. In an apartment nearby, the ballerina Polina (played in adulthood by Anastasia Shevtsova) is the hope of her impoverished family; they scrimp to pay for her training and become indebted to ruffian criminals.

Polina is finally accepted by the Bolshoi... only to find that the strictures of the troop are too much for her. She leaves Russia to follow a boyfriend to the south of France, to a fine glass-walled studio in Aix en Provence. Polina learns to shed her classicism under the skeptical eye of Liria (Juliette Binoche), the head of the dance troop. Frustrated even in France, Polina leaves for the grimy parts of Antwerp, turning her back on her training. Dance, of course, finds her even there, as the music simplifies from Tchaikovsky to Philip Glass to techno by the ensemble 79-D.

Shevtsova's impassiveness—one partner calls her "a commando"—opposes the expressiveness of her dancing. Some of her acting is like the noted Kuleshov experiment, as much juxtaposition as anything else. Binoche steals the show in her small crucial part. When a simpleton film critic claims that an actress gets more beautiful as she ages, he's actually trying to say "Perhaps I'm getting more beautiful as I age." And yet, Binoche...The formidableness of a sometimes lamb-like actress increases with the years, as is her presence. Her humanity is always clear behind the acerbic way she teaches, though she's capable of severity. (When she offers two students a bar of chocolate, you're unsure that this isn't supposed to be some sort of test.)

Liria's lessons seem useful: telling Polina that her dancing is too pretty, too stiff, that she doesn't want to see legs and arms flapping around, since that's what she sees all day. Liria encourages the Russian girl to lower her center of gravity. Movie musical fans should understand what this means—it's one of the principle difference in dancing between the earthly Gene Kelly and the more ethereal Fred Astaire.

An injury and a snub sets Polina off into lonely times in Belgium, where she's unable to find a new job and ends up sleeping in a laundromat. Then a new teacher arrives, Karl (Jeremie Belingard), who becomes a lover, and who can give her help to discover a new way to dance.

Their magic-hour performance in an industrial harbor is like what La La Land would have been if it'd had some serious urban density to it. Yet Polina starts to idle—first the training montage, then Polina's suffering father making a surprise visit, to be shocked by Polina's new life as a downtown barmaid, for instance.

The finale—an intimate duet with Belingard, with Polina in an abbreviated costume on a stage covered with artificial snow, makes one wonder if the film is claiming that it was just sexuality that was missing from Polina's dancing all along. This may be reductive. But if it's true, it certainly doesn't hurt.

PG, 108 Mins.
Opens Friday
5/10 stars

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