Polina

polina-rev Polina  (2017)    Oscilloscope/Drama    RT: 108 minutes    No MPAA rating (language, some violence, sexual content, thematic elements)    Director: Valerie Muller and Angelin Preljocaj    Screenplay: Valerie Muller    Music: 79D    Cinematography: Georges Lechaptois    Release date: September 22, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Anastasia Shevtsova, Veronika Zhovnytska, Juliette Binoche, Aleksei Guskov, Niels Schneider, Jeremie Belingard, Miglen Mirtchev, Kseniya Kutepova, Sergio Diaz, Oriana Jimenez, Ambroise Divaret.      Spoken in French and Russian w/English subtitles

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 “Everything was beautiful at the ballet/Graceful men lift lovely girls in white.” (“At The Ballet”, A Chorus Line)

 That’s the impression most people have of ballet, me included. It’s what they see on stage at Lincoln Center (Manhattan, NY) or the Academy of Music (Philadelphia, PA). What they don’t see is all the hard work that goes into making a ballerina. It’s not easy. Dancers train their entire lives. Their formative years are mainly spent in humorless classrooms under the sharp eyes of exacting instructors who constantly criticize and berate their every movement. It’s a pursuit more rigorous than making the Olympics. It takes a lot of blood, sweat and tears. Even then, there’s no guarantee that a ballerina, no matter how good, will make it. It’s a very competitive field where good isn’t good enough. Great isn’t even good enough. You have to be flawless. Event then, there’s still room for improvement. Perfection can still be perfected upon. The very best dancers, the ones that make it to center stage, make it look easy.

 polina-2017The French import Polina gets it and shows it in no uncertain terms. It’s due, in no small part, to the fact that it’s co-directed by choreographer and dancer Angelin Preljocaj. He and Valerie Muller (she also wrote the screenplay) give us a rare glimpse inside a world that’s anything but a day at the park. Rather than serve up the same-old/same-old about a dancer rising to the top, they avoid standard show-biz clichés in favor of a story that rings with truth and realism. When Polina sticks with this aspect of the story, it works. It’s slightly less successful when it gets into its main character’s personal life.

 Polina (Zhovnytska as a child, Shevtsova as a young adult) has been studying ballet her entire life. It’s her ticket out of a dreary life of poverty in Russia. She lives near a belching nuclear power plant on the outskirts of Moscow with her parents who have sacrificed everything to make sure she gets the best training. Despite a botched audition, she gets accepted into the Bolshoi Ballet to train under Bojinsky (Guskov), a once-prominent choreographer who was deemed too political by the Soviets for using music by American composers. He now watches over little girls as they try and usually fail to impress him. This is especially true of young Polina as he constantly criticizes her form and inability to get the movements right. This eventually changes when he sees just how dedicated she is to her art.

 As a teen, she meets and falls for French dancer Adrien (Schneider). One night they go to a modern dance recital where Polina is rocked to the core by what she sees onstage. It makes a big enough impression that she decides to move to France and join a modern dance company overseen by choreographer Liria Elsaj (Binoche, The English Patient). It’s very different from the style of dance she studied all her life; she has to change her technical approach if she wants to make it. Let’s just say that Polina doesn’t quite become a star. Quite the opposite, she ends up in Antwerp working as a waitress in a bar and sleeping in laundromats. Then she meets Karl (Belingard), an improvisational dance who teaches a group of teens. Liking what she sees, she starts working with him. In doing that, she begins to rediscover her love of dance.

 The dance sequences in Polina are very well done because the makers go old school in filming them. Instead of all the close-ups and editing that don’t really allow you to see anything other than a wild fury of movement, they give us full-body shots of the dancers in motion. We get to admire how smoothly and effortlessly they movie with each other. In the many rehearsal scenes, we get an idea of the effort that goes into getting a single movement down perfect. It’s a lot of hard work marked by disappointment, bruises and bleeding feet. Polina loves to dance and yearns to break free of her formal training. In one scene, young Polina walks home- rather, dances home- from class by herself in the twilight. The music changes from classical to club as she kicks up snow to the thumping beat. It’s a sign of things to come for her.

 When the focus shifts to personal stuff, specifically anything involving her family, Polina stumbles a bit. It falls head first into clichés like showing young Polina help her parents organize T-shirts and jeans for sale in other countries. There’s a subplot about her father’s involvement with criminals that’s half-baked and goes nowhere. Also, her romance with the French dancer isn’t all that interesting and ends predictably given the world they live in. However, it’s not as bad as it could have been because the two actresses playing Polina do an amazing job. Zhovnytska is amazing open for a child actress. Zhovnytska, who dances with the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theater, is simply terrific. As a dancer, she understands details like poise and how they carry themselves when they walk, sit or dance at clubs. Binoche is very believable as a dancer and artist with a unique vision.

 There’s a lot to admire about Polina. Of course, I’m speaking as somebody who’s never been intimately involved with dance unless you count my feeble attempts at breakdancing in high school. That is something that nobody ever needs to see. I’d be interested to hear what professional dancers think of Polina. I really like it. It held my interest throughout. The score by 79D, strongly suggestive of Polina’s yearning for freedom, is a real asset. I also like the look of the movie. I have a thing for European cities; there’s something cool and intense about them. They have a different energy than major American cities like New York, Chicago or Philadelphia. Despite a few missteps, Polina is a movie totally worth checking out.

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