There is a beauty in her movement. Whether she dances classical ballet or modern dance, there is something in the way she moves that is compelling. It’s an artistry that takes you from ballet school, to rehearsal studios, to stages. As Polina struggles to find her true form of expression, you take the journey with her. And not everything goes according to plan.
Natalie Portman won an Oscar for her role as a ballet dancer in the drama/thriller Black Swan. But anyone with a discerning eye could tell that outside of some close-ups she was not always doing the difficult dancing that was on view. First, no actress can learn enough ballet in one year to perform like a prima ballerina. It’s impossible. Second, her dance “stunt” double, Sarah Lane of American Ballet Theatre, in a New York Times interview and other publications, noted that she was not given enough credit for what she did.
Writer/director Valérie Müller and co-director Angelin Preljoçaj made two smart decisions before the first pirouette was twirled in this well thought-out film: Their source material is a novel with a plausible story by Bastien Vivès that delves into the life of a dancer. You never question the lead character’s drive, ambition, ambivalence and dedication. Also, the filmmakers cast Anastasia Shevtsova, a professional dancer from the Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, in the lead role. There is no fake dancing. As they tell Polina’s story, from childhood to bohemian young adult, you never question what you see. Never.
As a kid, initially, Polina (Veronika Zhovnytska) isn’t the best dancer in her classes, but possibly the most determined and unafraid. She is bold enough to question her stern instructor Bojinski’s (Aleksey Guskov) decisions and confronts him in ways the others would never dare. Maybe it is her strong self-belief, the foundation she has at home and the love she receives from her working class parents. As a family, they are on a mission to prepare Polina for the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet and a life that will be worlds apart from their blue-collar existence.
That’s the plan. But as the adolescent Polina (Shevtsova) is ready to enter the world-famous troupe, her repressed free spirit breaks out. Against her parent’s wishes, Polina runs off to France to study contemporary dance with famed choreographer Liria Elsaj (Juliette Binoche). To her dismay, Polina finds her classical training a blessing and a curse. Her form is perfect, her presence, style and emotions are not. She flounders. Finding her place in the dance world becomes a challenge.
There is something quite appealing about watching the little girl butt heads with the brusque instructor who eventually becomes her patron. There is something daring about a young woman eschewing years of preparation to follow a vague dream. And when she experiences failure, heartbreak over a lover, injuries and despair, her vulnerable character reels you in.
The Russian and European settings, from street scenes, to dance studios, to cheap apartments only artists could love are courtesy of production designer Toma Baqueni. The costumes Polina wears resemble the simple inexpensive clothes that befit a dancer’s budget (Jurgen Doering and Laure Villemer). Few cinematographers are skilled at filming dance, but Georges Lechaptois catches all the movement and positions perfectly. His overhead shots of dance routines are done at unexpected angles that are visually pleasing. Editors Fabrice Rouaud and Guillaume Saignol, grace the film, which ends at 112 minutes, with solid timing.
The team of Angelin Preljoçaj, a French dancer and choreographer, and writer/director Valérie Müller (Le monde de Fred) is strong. Together they bring you into the middle of the world of dance. Their storytelling is just right for the genre. The choreography is entertaining. They pull fine performances from a cast that is as assured on their feet as they are on screen. The script’s drama between Polina and her parents and her own inner conflict reflects the desires of many adolescents who are struggling to find their own path.
Aleksey Guskov, as the seemingly heartless instructor Bojinski, is suitably complex. Niels Schneider plays a whimsical lover with the depth of a flea. The most interesting supporting actor to watch is Miglen Mirtchev, whose interpretation of the doting then dejected father is heart breaking. And of course, kudos to Anastasia Shevtsova for making the transition from dancer to dancer/actress almost seamlessly.
Comparing Black Swan to Polina, is like comparing bitter oranges to sweet tangerines. BS was from the imagination of filmmaker Darren Aronofsky whose strong suit is often weird thrillers that border on horror films (Requiem for a Dream), not performing arts pieces.
With Angelin Preljocaj and Valérie Müller at the helm, Polina is a far more authentic representation of a dancer’s experience. It’s a dramatic film lovers of the art form can embrace. It’s revealing, painful, hopeful and graceful all at once.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.