Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
The art of dance is a precise one. Not everyone is built for that kind of rigorous activity and commitment. It takes skill and passion to bring the poetic fluidity of the movements to life. Same can be said of the filmmakers who bring us movies about it. We’ve seen lots of dance-themed movies cross our paths, films ranging from THE RED SHOES, to BLACK SWAN, to SAVE THE LAST DANCE, to CENTER STAGE, to STEP, to GIRL WALK ALL DAY, to STEP UP 3D. That’s not even including musicals by artists who were trained for heavy song and dance numbers – like Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Each has a distinct thread it weaves into our cinematic tapestry. Directors Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj’s POLINA adds to the piece. Based on Bastien Vivès’ graphic novel, this exquisite portrait of a dancer finding her way in the world is vibrant, captivating and engaging.
Eight year old Polina (Veronika Zhovnytska) has been dancing for four years when a tough-as-nails teacher Bojinski (Aleksey Guskov) spots her. She’s a natural, but more of a diamond in the rough in need of a good polish. His demanding techniques boarder on the sadistic – and worse, the expensive. Her father is forced to take risky jobs to compensate for his daughter’s dreams. Nevertheless, Polina persists and she, now a young woman (Anastasia Shevtsova), makes it to the prestigious Bolshoi. However, years of grueling sacrifice are thrown into jeopardy when she falls in love with a beguiling French dancer Adrien (Niels Schneider), eschewing classical training in favor of learning modern dance, studying under guru Liria Elsaj (Juliette Binoche). That’s not to say she found her calling. Like any good coming-of-age, she still must find her unique voice.
POLINA speaks beautifully as a love letter to the expressive art form. There are a handful of indelible shots that haunt. The way ethereal tutus hang above Polina as she surrenders herself to Adrien is evocative of her current emotional state. Her dance with Karl (Jeremie Belingard) both on the docks under a romantic pink sunset and during in the climax are utterly transfixing. These sequences are alive! Symbolism – like the buck that first appears whilst hunting with her father – is woven into the narrative effortlessly. The allegorical connection between the Snow White persona Polina is tasked to play in a modern dance performance and her own character provides thematic ties, “…having nothing and wanting something more than anything in the world.”
Müller and Preljocaj photograph the dances exceptionally. There’s a naturalism they find with their combination of a static camera and dancer’s body movements. Occasionally they go handheld to increase the intimacy. Better yet, they take the “show don’t tell” rule to heart. It’s powerful once we understand the different dance styles: classical, modern, improvisational and choreographed. It’s something that begs to be seen rather than explained – especially when it comes to the different values and systems behind classical technique and modern dance’s freedoms.
I’d also imagine Polina’s travails and search for dance identity is something most dancers struggle with in their own journeys. But it’s her passionate drive (expressed in her youth during a snowy dance sequence that would make Sia jealous) and subsequent crumble into self-doubt and aimlessness (expressed through a juxtaposition of an electric, mesmerizing montage) that also ring true as universal feelings. Plus, we empathize with her unforeseeable setbacks.
Toma Baqueni and Mila Preli’s superb production design and Guillaume Saignol’s crisp edits augment the atmospheric journey. Coupled with a soundtrack that provides the unspoken sound to the titular character’s inner voice (a pulsating beat you can chart), POLINA’s vision is a celebratory one.
POLINA is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. For where to find this playing near you, go here.