Saturday 29 December 2018

Odessa steps: "Polina"

Polina, a naggingly wispy footnote to our understanding of dance on film, sees directors Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj describing a young ballerina's trajectory from Russia to Paris, no more, no less. We first join Polina as a youngster (Veronika Zhovnytska) emerging from the kind of gloomy Soviet-era housing block Matt Damon found Lukas Moodyson's Lilja in at the end of The Bourne Supremacy - a location made no less gloomy with the revelation that this block backs onto a row of smoke-belching power plants. As a teen (played, from here on out, by Anastasia Shevtsova), she clashes with her glowering tutor (Aleksei Guskov) and enters the Bolshoi; thereafter, she strikes out for France, where she ends up under the tutelage of Juliette Binoche in a nice F.C. Barcelona hoodie. You expect her to suffer some career setback - perhaps the loan sharks from whom her folks borrowed her tuition fees will threaten the integrity of her ankles? - but it never arrives: our girl just keeps stretching and twirling, and your response will either be "good for her" or "where's the movie?".

The lack of narrative development is a side effect of Müller and Preljocaj's decision to prioritise movement - in the studio, across a continent - above all else. This need not necessarily have been a limitation: in places, Polina reminded me of Mia Hansen-Løve's Eden, which similarly tagged along in the wake of a creatively minded dreamer in search of a place for themselves. At just an hour and forty to that film's two-plus hours, though, crucial character detail is lost en route, and since the focus is on non-glamorous reality - the minor stumbles, the failed auditions and hook-ups, the menial labour that supports one's endeavours - you'll need far more interest in the repetitive slog of barre work (and, indeed, bar work) than this viewer could summon. It's been thoughtfully shot, granted. When our heroine mounts a hunky French contemporary in a dressing room, she does so against a backdrop of celestial white tutus that gives the impression the lovers have ascended to heaven, and matters conclude with a lavish production number you suspect may have been the raison d'être for the movie entire. Still, there was rather more drama for would-be Misty Copelands to engage with in Ballerina, the 2016 animation with a Carly Rae Jepsen theme song.

Polina is now playing in selected cinemas.

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