Polina is a tough sell. It is about a Russian ballet dancer, and Black Swan effectively suggested nothing else could be said about that world. Still, if the universe was just, Polina would be the next Rocky. Within the confines of a European art film, it hones some resolutely American clichés. And with good reason! They’re effective. I found myself rooting for Polina – caring about Polina – in a way I did not expect. By the end, I was moved by what she accomplished. This movie is a gorgeous surprise.
The first section takes place in Russia, with a young Polina (Veronika Zhovnytska) devoted to her craft. She craves the attention of her exacting instructor Bojinski (Aleksey Guskov), who is not exactly cruel, but has high demands from his dancers. Anastasia Shevtsova plays Polina as a young woman, and while she is accepted into the Bolshoi, she feels drawn to a more organic kind of dance. She abandons Russia for France, joining the seductive Adrien (Niels Schneider) as a partner – in more ways than one. The French instructor (Juliette Binoche, in an effective minor role) tells Polina she cannot achieve greatness, so Polina abandons France, finding her way in Antwerp instead.
Directors Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj create a familiar art house grammar. They film the dance sequences in a distant, almost dispassionate way. Polina’s sequences at home have more buoyancy, as if amateurish dance has more soul than the repetition within the studio. Once Polina gets to Antwerp, a funny thing starts to happen. They start adding some sports movie tropes. Polina includes multiple montages, fast-forwarding her transition to greatness, and the sheer willingness to embrace feel-good tropes is brazen. I did not expect it to work on me, but Polina pulls back instead of going for the easiest pay off. Some of the transitions are breathtaking, even beautiful, and they suggest the directors trust us to fill the missing holes.
Polina is in every scene of the movie, so the directors require Zhovnytska and Shevtsova to do a lot of the heavy lifting. Neither actor makes her immediately likable. In fact, Shevtsova seems to go out of her way to make Polina seem remote, even shallow. There is a long stretch of the movie where it is difficult to root for her, even if you’re worried how she will end up. It turns out that her distant nature also contains a scary devotion to her craft. In the many montages, she is a serious dancer, but it’s more important that she’s curious. The film suggests that worldly detachment is what hinders Polina’s greatness, so Müller and Preljocaj show us – repeatedly – how Polina draws from everyday life. Even a bar fight influences her. There are one too many of these sequences, as if we’re overfed with meaning.
Those issues are minor, however, since Polina leads to one of the most satisfying sequences of the year. We already had a sense of her greatness, but Müller and Preljocaj end with a gorgeously choreographed dance that distills everything Polina has learned from her young life. The dance has deliberate imperfections, and recalls Pina Bausch in its ability to mix modern and classical forms. Coupled with the music, Polina finally finds greatness on her terms, instead of those who constantly define greatness for her. It even earns its final image, which serves as a giant metaphor for Polina’s accomplishment. We rarely know what moments are formative in our lives, but if we’re lucky, we have the wisdom to look back with clarity.