Polina is aesthetically satisfying but at times too emotionally opaque.
Ballet is famously difficult to capture in narrative film, in part because of how hard it is to fake good ballet. This isn’t a problem for Polina, the new French film from married directors Valérie Müller and Anglelin Preljocaj, which Müller adapted from the graphic novel Polina by Bastien Vivès. The dancing in Polina is completely believable, thanks to a committed performance by lead actress Anastasia Shevtsova and because Preljocaj is himself a famous choreographer. The authenticity of the dancing is exemplary of an altogether authentic production, one that is believable to a fault. As realistic as Polina is, this realism also strips it of some of its dramatic potential, and the result is a film that it aesthetically satisfying but at times too emotionally opaque.
Polina, played as a youngster by Veronika Zhovnytska and as an adult by real-life dancer Shevtsova, is a Russian girl whose parents see dance as the ticket to a better life for their daughter. Unlike the many films in the popular dance romance subgenre, Polina does not follow a predictable trajectory. Though Polina does embark on love affairs, her story is more about her complicated relationship with ballet itself. Shevtsova keeps her face unreadable, which lets the dancing do the talking. This is fine up until she decides to stop dancing, which Polina does on occasion. Neither Shevstova nor the script allow us into Polina’s mind or heart in those moments, which leaves the audience out in the cold.
Black Swan, Suspiria, The Red Shoes and Billy Elliot are great films about ballet, and none of them are lacking in emotion. In fact, what these films do so well is balance the precision and discipline of ballet with vibrant emotional excess. In the case of Black Swan, the balance is struck with sexuality; with Suspiria, it’s horror; The Red Shoes devotes as much time to backstage drama and fairytale mythology as it does dance; and with Billy Elliot, ballet is combined with the messiness of boyhood and Thatcher-era U.K. politics. Polina, however, falls in line with less successful ballet films like Robert Altman’s The Company and the little-seen gay-themed Five Dances in that it is almost entirely concerned with dance. While this laser focus is admirable, as is the dedication Müller and Preljocaj show towards realism, the problem is that a film about ballet needs to find something to differentiate itself from an actual ballet. As a visual experience, a real ballet will almost always eclipse a filmed version, and as good as the dance scenes in Polina are, they cannot, as a whole, measure up.
The film spends time exploring Polina’s flaky approach to her art, showing her putting in the hard work at a Russian academy only to abandon it to pursue an affair with a hot colleague (Niels Schneider) and then repeating herself by ditching a promising opportunity in France. But Polina intentionally keeps us outside of our heroine’s head, and as a result these decisions, however impulsive they are supposed to appear, feel unearned. By the time Polina ends up working at a bar in Belgium, it is hard to tell if she even cares about the lives she has left behind.
However, after every shaky dramatic decision, there is a scene to make Polina worthwhile on some cinematic level. It pushes itself towards the cliff of indifference only to launch itself back in with vibrant filmmaking. These include an early scene between Polina and her mother Natalia (Kseniya Kutepova, excellent in a small role), a French dance practice that serves as an excellent showcase for a Juliette Binoche, who is entirely believable as an instructor and former dancer who wants more out of Polina and, finally, a last snowy dance duet that is visually striking and dramatically exhilarating all at once. These brief sections are good enough to justify the rest of the film, but they also serve as a reminder of how much better Polina could have been.