THOUGH POLINA IS DESCRIBED AS A DANCE FILM, it is by no means typical of the genre. Like its titular protagonist, who rejects a career as a Bolshoi ballerina in search of something more vital to her life, the film does not follow the lead of its estimable predecessors. Unlike The Red Shoes (1948), it is not about a ballerina under the spell of a tyrannical impresario. Nor is it like the first episode of Vincente Minnelli’s The Story of Three Loves (1953), which echoes the same fatal attraction leading to the death of the heroine—played by the glorious Moira Shearer in both films. And though it may have something of the ambitious choreographer’s obsession of fusing dance with life that drives Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), that film too is more grandiose than the modest Polina. As directed by Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj, Polina is ultimately an affecting yet unromantic love story in which Polina’s eventual triumph is really about integrating dance with her poor Russian background and her strong bonds with her father and her fatherly mentor, Bojinski.
The film takes a different path than the Bastien Vivès graphic novel on which it is based. We learn nothing of Polina’s home life in the graphic novel. Her mother appears as an abstract blur in the book’s first four gray frames, spouting advice as she drives her daughter to her first audition, about how she should behave, before signing off with an indifferent, “You’ll be great, Polina,” never (but once) to be heard from again. The film’s account of the father’s struggle to keep the family afloat while dealing with unsavory thugs trafficking in God knows what is nowhere hinted at in the novel, nor are Polina’s memories of hunting with her father, images that recur most movingly in the movie’s final scene.
The book is consumed with the contrasting dance worlds of Polina’s journey—from her rejection of the classical repertoire to her ventures around Europe, earning a living as a barmaid, and finally to her status as a celebrated choreographer. The film eschews this trajectory toward resounding success, deepening not only the flat graphics of the novel but its characterological dimension as well.
Thus, the bulk of the movie is dominated by Polina’s encounters with Bojinski and Parisian choreographer Liria Elsaj, while the final third traces how her seemingly directionless life unexpectedly leads to the blossoming of a newly discovered self. Cheered on by a group of experimental artists and their trainer, Polina improvises a fusion of ballet and natural movements that reveals her unique talent and creative bent.
At the end, her search, while still ongoing, is poetically captured in the film’s only extended performance—choreographed by codirector Preljocaj. Beginning as a lovely pas de deux invigorated by aspects of modern dance, it is intercut with the fantasized image of an approving Bojinski, and then segues from an audition space to a stage set that re-creates—as a projection of her imagination?—the wintry woods associated with her father and her childhood, replete with the reappearance of a powerful but vulnerable stag. The potent, open-ended nature of this final scene is perfectly in sync with the life of its protagonist.
The film’s actors are utterly at home in the world of dance. If at first Aleksei Guskov’s Bojinski evokes the stereotypical demonic perfectionist—à la Anton Walbrook’s Boris in The Red Shoes—it is soon clear that he is closer to the strict but caring father figure whom Polina comes to love. Juliette Binoche is unnervingly convincing as the French mentor Elsaj, for whom dance is everything, and all about loss—an especially apt message that the young Polina absorbs only later.
Anastasia Shevtsova’s understated performance deftly suggests Polina’s reserve and interiority, rendering her search for an artistic path as much about character exploration as it is about the language of dance. Her love affairs with the two appealing young male leads, Adrien and Karl (Niels Schneider and Jérémie Bélingard), are as seamlessly integrated as they are in her life, highlighting an aspect of dance movies too often strained.
Widescreen cinematography is so commonplace today that the work of DP Georges Lechaptois might easily go unnoticed: It gets right both the dark vastness of Moscow’s spaces and the cluttered density of a Belgian bar, while lending the final dance piece a physical and poetic aura essential to its artistic and psychological impact.
Polina opens in select theaters in New York on August 25 and Los Angeles on September 1.