Polina, directed by Valérie Müller and choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, is ostensibly a film about a classically trained ballet dancer finding her artistic voice. She achieves this by giving up a chance to join the Bolshoi Academy in Moscow and wafting off to France with a boyfriend who previously deflowered her on a heap of tutus. In fact, Polina is the story of a woman for whom dancing is a form of self-expression rather than an art form.
Polina, played as a young woman by Anastasia Shevtsova, wears a perpetual pout, grim, sullen, and inexpressive. She drifts, between silence and insolence, practice and idleness, ambition and apathy - indeed, it's a wonder so many people try to stick with her. Though the camera lingers lovingly on her puffy lips and her wide blue-green eyes, it's hard to say whether that physical surface refuses to yield its psychological secrets, or if there aren't any secrets there to hide.
Little insight is given into just why Polina feels so stifled as a dancer. She complains that she's sick of "mindlessly executing other people's choreography," but what neither she, nor the filmmakers, seem to realize is that the mindlessness is not soldered onto the performance of other people's choreography. The mindlessness is all Polina's, her boredom, her vacuous disengagement, her sullen refusals to cooperate: none of that is to be found in the ballets that she studies with teacher after sympathetic teacher. Her move from ballet to modern dance is framed as liberation from an overly disciplined, ego-erasing classical technique. I could buy this if the little bits and pieces of choreography that we get to see - there isn't a single, uninterrupted dance sequence in the entire film - weren't so derivative, so blatantly in line with what modern dance is, and has been, for decades, which is surprising given that Preljocaj is quite a respected choreographer. It's impossible to glean why so many people believe in the talent of this incessantly reluctant dancer, since the dancing that the expressions of the actors insist is so moving is... okay, not bad, pas mal.
To be fair, blame for this choreographical failure should also be apportioned out to cinematographer Georges Lechaptois and editors Fabrice Rouaud and Guillaume Saignol. Close-up shots, perhaps a legacy of the graphic novel source material, preponderate, claustrophobically cutting off the tops of heads and the tips of chins. The obviously hand-held camera bounces and wavers through shots of static, seated actors, not so severely as to make the audience queasy, but enough to be distracting. The dances suffer most egregiously as a result, with frequent cuts to teary-eyed observers watching the dances chopping up every choreographed scene. Full-length shots are exceedingly rare and, when we get them, seem accidental, the roving camera falling to right or left just enough to squeeze in those feet. No dance will ever look especially impressive on film unless the camera shows us the whole body. An outstretched arm here, a hand on a gauzily wrapped waist there, an upturned face, these offer nothing more than a vague shadow of a movement, body parts rather than a body.
If the film is meant to be a critique of the stuffiness of classical ballet in favor of the freedom of modern dance, which is, true, somewhat more open-minded towards new, and especially female, choreographers, that critique is both shallow and too vehement. Preljocaj himself switched from ballet to modern. He started working with such lights of the modern dance world as Merce Cunningham - in 1980. I could buy Polina's change in allegiance if the film took place a hundred years ago, during the cataclysms of the birth of modernist ballet, or even during the '80s, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, but modern dance is already more than entrenched within establishment dance. The vapidity of Polina's balletic rebellion lies in the total lack of artistic risk involved in the decision to move to modern.
However, maybe Polina shouldn't be considered a dance film, but rather a coming-of-age drama in which the heroine just happens to be a dancer. Her rebellions against her teachers, her slow, painful drop from the Bolshoi to street-dancing in Paris, her self-consciously adolescent self-abuse, then become illustrations of the malaise of being young, relatively talented, and poor. As such, the film offers the pleasures of much young adult literature, both endlessly self-pitying and insistent on the pursuit of 'art,' an art that at bottom isn't about the perfection Polina's Russian maestro (Aleksei Guskov) tells her all artists pursue, but working out the personality kinks that the child of a social worker, rather than a smuggler, might work out in therapy. The dialogue is littered with the sort of generically mystical bromides that are supposed to be deep; for example, "Don't dance. Show me what it's like to look at God."
As a whole, though, Polina is too earnest to be pretentious, too studiously and naively serious. The fact that Polina smiles twice in the entire film illustrates how desperately lacking in a sense of humor both she, and the film, are. While it's true that perhaps the greatest modern choreographer, Pina Bausch, exhorted us to "dance, dance, otherwise we are lost," she also had enough a twinkle in her eye to choreograph an en-pointe piece in which the ballerina danced with veal in her toe shoes. The despair in Polina is unleavened with either the smallest speck of laughter or joy or the withering gravitas of an intellectually grounded postmodernism. Adolescent dancers going through an angsty period might connect with this film, but for the rest of us, it's a slog.