I can only imagine what someone who cares passionately about all forms of dance will think of the new French film Polina, from co-directors Valérie Müller (Le monde de Fred) and Angelin Preljocaj, a well-known French choreographer, based on the graphic novel by Bastien Vivès. I know very little about the dance world, and I found it an endless source of fascination and artistic inspiration that completely captured the rigorous, frustrating world of professional dancers.
A young Russian girl named Polina (played at age 8 by Veronika Zhovnytska) begins her rigorous training at a school her parents can’t afford. Not wanting to let his only child down, her father Anton (Miglen Mirtchev) finds a way to make it work (a way that comes back to haunt him and the family for years to come). As she gets older, Polina (played in the rest of the film by Anastasia Shevtsova) and her classmates strive to get into the ballet company at the Bolshoi Theater, which she does. Almost immediately, however, she follows her heart to study more modern dance in France under Liria Elsaj, an unconventional choreographer (played masterfully by Juliette Binoche, who does her own dancing).
Liria sees Polina’s raw talent and attempts to break her free from her classical training in order to actually dance with her soul. Polina and her boyfriend (Niels Schneider) land the leads in a new production, but when she is injured, she is replaced by a more natural dancer, a rejection that disheartens her so much she quits the company, leaving her effectively homeless and without direction.
Polina’s strength is in its authenticity, and the character can’t quite articulate or find the type of dancing she wants to do, sick as she is of being a vessel for someone else’s choreography but not wanting to completely jettison her lifetime of training and perfect form. She gets a job as a waitress in a club and finds a roommate who just happens to be a self-taught dancer named Karl (Jeremie Belingard, a principal dancer at the Paris Opera Ballet), who encourages self expression and finally shows Polina the version of the dance experience that she’s been longing for.
The movie succeeds as both a story of struggle (both Polina’s and her parents) and as a showcase for some truly extraordinary dance routines—from breathtaking ballet to other-worldly street dancing. We watch Polina, who is an emotionally distant, hardened person from years of Russian training, soften just enough through experience and healthy doses of self-doubt to let passion into her chosen art form. The film is about transformation, which in most people doesn’t occur overnight or as a result of a singular experience. Instead, it’s a gradual, often painful process that Polina gets exactly, nakedly right. This is as great a film about the arts as you’ll likely see this year.
The film opens today at the Gene Siskel Film Center.