Throughout the history of film, dance on screen has helped foster some of cinema’s most interesting works. In the earliest days of film you have works like Annabelle Serpentine Dance, which is still some of the most erotically alluring film making the medium has ever known, and up through today film has given us Gene Kelly musicals, their modern off-shoots like Step Up 3D (maybe the greatest 3D film ever produced), and even art films like those from Nathan Kroll or Carlos Saura.
However, they’re becoming more and more rare as its counterpart, the musical, goes by the wayside. So when a new film focusing on the art of the human body through the medium of dance crops up, it’s worthy of one’s intrigue. And thankfully, Polina is worthy of one’s hard earned money.
From director Valerie Muller and world renowned choreographer Angelin Preljocaj (who happens to also be Muller’s husband) comes Polina. The film tells the story of the titular young woman, played by ballerina Anastasia Shevtsova, who has more or less spent her entire life training within the confines of classical ballet. Starting the film as a newly minted member of the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow, Polina has a revelation when she first encounters what is known as contemporary dance. Thrilled by this exciting and freeing new form of self expression, Polina leaves her new gig and takes up a residency in France under the watchful eye of choreographer Liria Elsaj (Juliette Binoche), only to open up an entirely new can of worms as the transition is more difficult and eye opening than one had expected.
Co-starring early Xavier Dolan muse Niels Schneider, arguably the best aspect of the picture writ large is its ability to balance a relatively standard narrative conceit with top tier performances. Polina as a feature motion picture is quietly unremarkable, save for the performances directors Muller and Preljocaj were able to mine from, particularly, Shevtsova, Binoche and Schneider. Shevtsova is an absolute revelation here, and while the dance sequences are indeed breathtaking as one would expect given her history as a dancer, the character itself seems entirely lived in and profoundly natural. Sure, it shouldn’t be a shock that a dancer knows how to play the role of a life long dancer, but there is an ease in front of the camera, an ease inviting the viewer into her character’s human experience, that defies even veteran stage and screen thespians. Schneider is also quite good, bringing with him every bit of youthful energy that made him a star through the early works of Xavier Dolan (his turn in Dolan’s Heartbeats is still one of best performances Dolan has ever gotten out of one of his actors), and then there is Juliette Binoche. Working at a shocking rate in comparison to many of her contemporaries, it’s absolutely thrilling to see one of the greatest screen actors in the medium’s history flex her acting chops in ways not seen every day. Herself deeply interested in dance, Binoche is superb here, showing a freedom that’s rare for Binoche when not working in the absurdism of, say, a Bruno Dumont.
These performances, however, are in support of a story that’s simply too time worn, too flat, for its own good. Directors Muller and Preljocaj are fine craftsmen, but as is the case with many of these dance-centric films, when the camera isn’t capturing the art specifically, the film is caught spinning its wheels. The cinematography is crisp and quite beautiful, but the film always seems to keep our characters at arm’s length, turning the film into a cold collection of cliches that lay flat on the screen. 79D does the score and the electronic compositions offer up an interesting contrast to the early sequences of classical dance performances, and the editing of the film gives each dance performance room to breath, yet there is still a lack of energy and real emotion at the core of this film that makes it hard to engage with. Clocking in at a pinch over 100 minutes, the film is a touch too long, a touch too clinical and a touch too cliche.