A Brief Commentary and Review of “Polina”
A film by Angelin Preljocaj and Valérie Müller
112 minutes - NR - in Russian and French, English subtitles.
Review by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director
Albert Einstein is reported as having once said, “Dancers are the athletes of the gods.” Which may explain why I’ve always struggled to find much difference for myself between my moves on the dance floor and my calisthenics routine.
But when I see a limber ballet artist bend themselves in half or defy gravity by flying through the air like a leaping gazelle as a form of human expression, it is nothing short of pure poetry in motion. Capture such visual expression with the eye of a director’s camera and a realistic script and you have the makings of a good film like “Polina.”
The basic storyline is not unfamiliar and fairly universal. There are the established forms and structures of what’s considered acceptable art and culture, and the equal and opposite reactive force of each generation pushing the boundaries of exploration and individuation. In “Polina,” a critically harsh dance instructor vituperates a shy young aspiring student; whose parent’s dreams of one day seeing their daughter on the stage of the Bolshoi only adds to the pressure. When perseverance and endurance eventually promise to result in achieving the sought-after prize, a wider world comes along; and with it, one more coming-of-age story that emerges.
What makes Polina’s story exceptional happens to be the very credible acting performed by some truly accomplished dance artists, as well. Anastasia Shevtsova plays the role of Polina. Born in 1995 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, she entered the Russian Academy of Ballet at the age of ten, and graduated nine years later. After starring in this, her first film role, she has now joined the Mariinsky Theatre of Saint Petersburg, one of the world’s most prestigious ballet companies.
And, Juliette Binoche? I knew she was an accomplished actor and painter (Mountain Shadow screened “Words and Pictures” in 2014), but I never knew she could dance!
In an interview for this film, Binoche remarked, “Dance allows you to get in touch with another part of yourself. Movement brings body and spirit together. I love the risks certain choreographers have taken throughout history to break away from the conventional and find a movement of their own. Taking the risk of being yourself is courageous because you can be swiftly rejected or misunderstood. There is a language between a choreographer and his dancers that is woven together through long hours of rehearsal. Dancers “catch” things you can’t express through words.”
In “Polina,” Binoche plays the role ofchoreographer, Liria Elsaj. At one point in the film, Liria tells Polina that an artist is “someone who knows how to see the world around her.”
While some film critics have judged the film’s storyline as “meandering” or “unraveling,” I regard the film instead as a very realistic and natural process of a young adult seeking and evolving; without the need for some dramatic and extraordinary turn of events.
Whatever the medium, artists are too often viewed as talented eccentrics or maladjusted and obsessed geniuses. For those of us with two left feet, it’s a welcome pleasure to see the dual condition of being both “gifted” and “normal” in the same story. jb
Postscript: What about the elk that appears, disappears and re-appears?
An elk appears at two would-be turning points in the film. First, Polina accompanies her father into the snowy woods to hunt rabbits. Momentarily, a moose appears and then kneels down before her, before instantly vanishing. At the end of the film, it re-appears at the conclusion of an exquisite interpretive duet on-stage; and where a similar snow scene has been recreated. This time, the moose pauses with a sense of resolution, before slowly turning and sauntering off-stage. Meanwhile, Polina faintly smiles.
In different cultural mythologies around the world the appearance of this kind of animal can symbolize a variety of different things; most typically healing and gentleness. Dreaming of an elk is said to symbolize strength and endurance.
What about this beast in “Polina?” I have my own ideas.Without asking the filmmakers, perhaps it’s meaning is left up to you, the viewer, to decide.