At the core of most films about dance, from The Red Shoes to Billy Elliot, is the conflict between the harsh outside world and the thrill of performance, where the ecstasy of dance is only matched by the frustration of the barriers to getting on stage. Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj’s Polina abides by this tradition but so myopically tries to reduce the personhood of the young woman at the film’s center to her dance career that even its sensitive and gorgeous choreographies can’t fully offer respite from the hollow narrative.
Based on a 2011 graphic novel by Bastien Vivès, Polina follows the career and personal transformations of the titular dancer (Anastasia Shevtsova) from her earliest days studying ballet in Russia’s harshest, most prestigious academies through to her independent explorations of contemporary dance in France and Belgium. Polina’s French subtitle, “danser sa vie,” which roughly translates to “dance her life,” is something of a credo for the film, which is dominated by highly emotive choreographies. As Polina’s tightly disciplined world of ballet yields to the earthly, visceral one of contemporary dance, the film becomes a meditation on the pleasures and pains of different modes of expression.
Polina’s interiorization of her professional and financial struggles, romances, and personal triumphs as she feels her way through the world are physically manifested in her sometimes masterful, sometimes fumbling dancing. From awkward improvisation, to the arrhythmic shuffling of a chance encounter between friends, to a final dance number that passionately reaches into the zones of deepest intimacy, Polina’s affection for simply showing people moving, artfully or not, evokes its protagonist’s changing world and inner life.
The film’s finest scene captures a turning point in Polina’s life, when her cloistered, immature sense of artistry gives way to an understanding of how to be more in touch with her everyday life. During her brief time in France, Polina studies contemporary dance under Liria Elsaj (Juliette Binoche), who serves as a kind of foil to her student. With as little as an effusive, blissful smile, Binoche captures a passion that speaks to Liria’s deeply felt unity with the sloppy everyday rhythms of humanity and dance as an art form—a grand show of feeling that awakens Polina to the possibilities of her own passions.
Unfortunately, the narrative that’s punctuated by all of Polina’s dance sequences is staidly mechanical. Throughout the film, Polina is set back by financial troubles, family ruptures, even the mob, but these incidents, given their shockingly flat affect, are handled by the filmmakers as afterthoughts to all the dance numbers. Striking as these numbers often are, they come to feel like tableaus without apparent narrative connection given how little tension there is between them and the goings-on of the thinly constructed story. It’s a disconnect that leaves the film feeling like a bildungsroman with little sense of Polina as a person beyond her sometimes expressive desire to move.