The young ballet dancer comes alive, swaying and spinning in improvised moves to pop music while her roommate and some teenage friends watch. The scene pops out in Polina because it’s one of the few times that the title character (Anastasia Shevtsova) smiles and really seems to be enjoying herself, connecting playfully to the art form that drives her.
Actually, that’s not completely true. We also see the younger Polina, age eight (played by Veronika Zhovnytska), happily making up dance moves in the snow, framed in the background by ominous nuclear reactor stacks that proclaim, Welcome to Russia. The only child of loving parents trying hard to make ends meet (dad is involved with shady associates), Polina is trained to earn a spot in that great cultural icon, the Bolshoi Ballet.
To land an audition there, she first has to undergo rigorous years under the strict dance master, Bojinski (Aleksey Guskov), who has a habit of humiliating her in front of classmates. (“Your movements are stiff, mechanical, ugly!”) Of course, anyone who has seen a movie like this knows a tough-love bond will likely form between teacher and student.
But Polina has surprises in store. Instead of staying on the time-honored path toward the Bolshoi, the young woman falls for a French classmate, Adrien (Niels Schneider). Dismaying her parents, she follows him to France to join a modern dance company run by Liria (Juliette Binoche, both sensual and strict in what ends up being not much more than a cameo).
Polina acknowledges that an artist’s life is endlessly precarious. A bad ankle or a bit of bum luck can derail what looks from the outside like a can’t-lose career. This means that Polina has to undergo a series of challenges that take her from working at the barre to working at a bar, even though we suspect she’ll figure things out.
The movie is about the search for her authentic self, her unique voice (or moves) as an artist and dancer. But while we’re told this repeatedly, often through dialogue that’s a little too on-the-nose, it’s hard sometimes to really feel it. Partly that’s due to Shevtsova, a professional dancer in her film debut. She’s gorgeous, and her on-camera poise reflects the brutal discipline we see her character endure in the rehearsal studios. But that emotional reserve sometimes verges on opacity. We never get inside her head.
“I feel like I’m stringing moves together without dancing,” she complains to Bojinski. It’s one of many times when we’re told what the movie is about, more than actually experiencing it ourselves. I respected the film more than I was ever actually convinced by it. Yet it’s easy to watch, thanks to the joys of watching beautiful bodies in motion, and the casual, street-level appeal of the European cities Polina journeys through.
Plus, married directors Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj build their film to a lovely, smartly edited climactic scene — a pas de deux Polina dances with her Belgian roommate Karl (Jeremie Belingard), set to Philip Glass’s haunting Violin Concerto: II.
Like many elements in the movie, it’s technically admirable but emotionally distant. (I was possibly more interested in learning who had written the concerto than in watching Shevtsova and Belingard). Earlier in the film, Liria chides her new Russian student for displaying technique without soul. “I don’t want a pretty dancer,” she says. “I want to see Polina dance.” In the end, I wasn’t convinced that Polina ever lets us see that.
Polina. With Anastasia Shevtsova, Juliette Binoche, Jeremie Belingard, Niels Schneider. Directed by Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj. In French and Russian with subtitles. Unrated. 108 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.