When dealing with a narrative that takes place in the world of ballet, naturally it enriches a feature with a certain elegance, aesthetically gratifying in its graceful choreography. But beyond that the viewer requires an emotional strand to invest in, characters to care for, otherwise you’re left with a film that may look very pretty, but has little substance. Which, regrettably, is the case for Valérie Muller and Angelin Preljocaj’s coming-of-age tale Polina.
The eponymous protagonist, played by newcomer Anastasia Shevtsova, is a teenager from a modest background in Russia, who dreams of being a classical ballet dancer, with ambitions of entering the well-renowned Bolshoi company. But it’s a medium that is so emotionally entwined with reality, and while this young woman is discovering who she is and her place in this world, falling in love, leaving home – it risks impacting her performance. Wanting to utilise her newfound perspective on the world, perhaps she may have to leave classical ballet behind her, and while that’s initially what impressed the revered teacher Liria Elsaj (Juliette Binoche) – a more contemporary approach could well be her calling.
Though taking place in a world very different to many of those indulging in this piece of cinema, at its core is a somewhat recognisable coming-of-tale narrative, a little formulaic in parts, but allows the viewer to resonate with the journey Polina is going on, as we can project our own trepidation and sense of ambition from our formative years onto the character, remembering when we too faced decisions about our future, decisions many of us are still making today. But with this formula comes tedium, as a film that is too predictable in parts, never quite subverting expectations.
Thankfully Binoche turns in an impressive cameo, and shows off her own dancing ability in the process (is there anything she can’t do?). Yet we don’t see much of Polina in action, perhaps a deliberate approach, as so much of the praise she receives we merely hear, we don’t experience. But this is far from being a distraction technique deriving from the actresses’ inability to perform – for eventually we do see her dance, and she’s incredible. But we have to wait for it – as the directors build the suspense, almost (though in incredibly different circumstances) similar to Boogie Nights.
Another theme explored is Polina’s steely determination and incredible discipline, which all successful ballet dancers must have. We do explore this internal conflict as she tries to balance being a teenager with her career aspirations, but sadly it’s not quite nuanced nor substantial enough in its depiction, not quite hitting the same heights, in that regard, that Whiplash reached. Though to be fair, not many do.
Polina is playing at the Transylvania International Film Festival 2017.