Polina (3 stars)

Polina

Juliette Binoche features in this story of the trials and tribulations of a young ballerina

You may think you know what to expect from a film about a promising young Russian ballerina, after all, as we are reminded by a stern dance instructor early on in proceedings, 'the Bolshoi Ballet is the symbol of Russia'. Yet, as we soon discover, Polina is a film determined to move to its own narrative beats.

As a child, Polina (Veronika Zhovnytska) finds great joy in ballet. For her, it is an escape from the hardships of everyday life; for her struggling parents, an opportunity for a better future. Yet, when she becomes a teenager, Polina (now played by Anastasia Shevtsova) finds herself railing against the tightly bound forms of classical ballet, and travels to Europe in search of new opportunities. Meeting modern dance choreographer Liria Elsaj (Juliette Binoche) and, then, in Germany, fellow dancer Karl (Jérémie Belingard), with whom she has immediate chemistry, Polina finds the freedom to explore her physical and creative limits

In adapting the book by Bastien Vives, co-directors Valérie Müller, who also wrote the screenplay, and Angelin Preljocaj, the renowned French choreographer, have taken care to focus equally on the pleasure and the pain of Polina's journey. There are many sequences of exquisite beauty, which capture the magic and eroticism of dance: the young Polina moving with abandon in Russia's snowy industrial landscape; her pink-tutued form swirling across a stage, shot from above; Polina and Karl improvising moves in the pre-dawn light of an Antwerp harbour.

But, crucially, there are just as many moments in which Polina nurses her bruised and bleeding feet, slogs her guts out working in a bar or roams the streets, unable to make enough money to pay for a room. For her, the desire to dance is both a blessing and a curse. Talent is simply not enough to guarantee success – that only comes after years of hard, thankless graft that can grind even the greatest ambition into the dirt.

While Polina may be something of an obvious cipher for the trials and tribulations of artistic endeavour, Russian ballerina Shevtsova is utterly beguiling both on and off the dance floor. And her performance, together with the stunning visuals, give both character and film genuine heart and soul.

Selected release from Fri 21 Dec.

Polina

  • 3 stars
  • 2016
  • France
  • 1h 48min
  • Directed by: Valérie Müller, Angelin Preljocaj
  • Cast: Anastasia Shevtsova, Veronika Zhovnytska, Juliette Binoche

Polina (Zhovnytska as a girl, Shevtsova as a teenager) is a Russian ballet student who travels to Europe in search of new opportunities. The pleasure and pain of her journey are both examined, with exquisite dance sequences but also bleeding feet and hard graft. Real-life ballerina Shevtsova is utterly beguiling.

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