Film Review: ‘Polina’ Captures the Poignant Complexity of a Dancer’s Life

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In the world of ballet, elegance and grace is of the essence. The titular dancer of Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj’sPolina” knows this all too well, facing criticism at an early age for not being limber. But natural-born talent can only get you so far, as Polina proves in this captivating saga about a young woman who fearlessly chases her dreams.

Polina’s long journey begins as a young aspiring ballerina in Russia, where she must prove her worth at a rigourous ballet school. There she meets Bojinski (Aleksey Guskov), a highly respected but demanding instructor. Struggling to impress him but willing to learn, he becomes an important figure in her life. That hard work pays off years later, when she is invited to join the iconic Bolshoi ballet. But on one fateful night out, she discovers contemporary dance and falls in love with it. Before long, she has packed up her things and heads to France to work with a famous choreographer (played by Juliette Binoche). But despite this new freedom from the rigid constraints of ballet, Polina finds the transition to be difficult. Once again, she struggles to shine, forcing her to reconsider the lifelong plan that her very humble family set out for her.

With a compelling human interest story at the heart of its narrative, “Polina” hits familiar beats for fans of shows like “So You Think You Can Dance”. Far from an overnight success, Polina’s journey is an uphill climb. She isn’t a naturally gifted dancer and even at an early age, Polina is aware that her parents’ meager finances will lessen her chances of becoming a prima ballerina. But she and her family will stop at nothing to ensure her success, a fact which pushes the film into desperate, gritty territory.

Indeed, the biggest strength of “Polina” is how it eschews “reality tv” sentimentality for “cinematic realism”, both in style and theme. Surely aided by the trained eye of a choreographer at the helm (co-director Angelin Preljocaj), the film’s visuals are beautiful, dynamic and evocative. And in front of the camera, Anastasia Shevtsova’s background as a professional dancer adds a further sense of authenticity. Though her demure screen presence doesn’t always satisfy the emotional nuances of the role, her poise and expressive movements more than compensate.

And ultimately, it’s those bravura dance sequences which separate “Polina” from your average dance film. Furthermore, the script instills meaning to the dances, showing how life affects art and vice versa. Indeed, the film takes the term “dance for your life” quite seriously through Polina’s rocky road to success. But as the stunning conclusion illustrates, the heartbreaks and disappoints along the way make the taste of victory even sweeter.

“Polina” opens in select theaters August 25.

GRADE: (★★★)