Monday, August 21, 2017

Polina: Juliette Binoche can Dance

Not much has changed in Russia. The president is a former KGB officer and the Bolshoi Ballet is still the nation’s most prestigious cultural institution. For an aspiring dancer like Polina Oulinov, rebelling against the Bolshoi is like any other Russian rebelling against Putin. Yet, she will risk a brilliant career to pursue modern dance in Valérie Müller & Angelin Preljocaj’s Polina (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Oulinov is not a superhero, but she can endure great physical pain and she was first brought to life in the pages of Bastien Vivès’ like-titled graphic novel. Although she was supposedly never that “supple,” young Oulinov was still admitted to the ballet school of the great Bojinski, a legendary choreographer who ran afoul of Soviet censors from time to time. He is hard on her, but he also helps her find the key to ace the entrance exam for Moscow’s leading ballet high school.

During her teen years, Oulinov steadily develops her art, but she still returns for tutoring from Bojinski. As a result, she easily aces the Bolshoi audition, but a special performance from a visiting French modern dance troupe convinces her to forsake the venerable ballet company to pursue modern dance in Aix-en-Provence. For a while, she makes progress under Liria Elsaj’s tutelage, but her prima ballerina attitude eventually clashes with the troupe’s cooperative ethos. Thus, begins a period of scuffling across France and Belgium.

Evidently, Juliette Binoche really can do it all. A few years ago, she performed in a legit dance production choreographed by Akram Khan, so it makes perfect sense to cast her as Elsaj. In fact, most of her on-screen performance comes through her dancing, which is impressive. Yet, her straight talk to Oulinov also leaves a lasting impression.

Likewise, Anastasia Shevtsova, a member of the Mariinsky, has all the chops you would expect. She is also quite a good screen thesp, making us despise and yet sympathize with Oulinov, in equal measure. Jérémie Bélingard (of the Paris Opera) compliments her perfectly, both in terms of dance steps and romantic chemistry. Yet, it is Aleksei Guskov who really gives the film its soul, even though Müller and Preljocaj have too much integrity for any tearful summation scenes between teacher and former pupil.

In fact, Müller the screenwriter and Preljocaj the acclaimed choreographer share duties at the helm without any apparent Jekyll-and-Hyde effects. They stage the performances in visually interesting ways and bring out the characters’ passion for dance. Their primary cast-members are used quite shrewdly, but they also get a key assist from Yurie Tsugawa and her partner, whose pivotal performance of Snow White is so arresting, we can believe it would send Oulinov off packing to France.

One thing comes through loud and clear during Polina: a dancer’s life is not for the weak of heart or limb. Despite a few melodramatic indulgences, it is a surprisingly honest and even gritty film. Plus, Juliette Binoche has space to show off talents many of her admirers have not had a chance to appreciate. Recommended for patrons of French cinema and modern dance, Polina opens this Friday (8/25) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the Lincoln Plaza uptown.