A girl from the sticks gives her all to become a dancer. Undergoes brutal training. Gets a big break. Finds a lover who becomes a rival. Takes some hard knocks. And through hard work and good fortune, she twirls into the bright lights. The directing team of Valérie Müller and (choreographer) Angelin Preljocaj covers these typical dance-movie steps faithfully, but their film soars with expressive and gorgeous choreography. It also manages to keep its feet on the ground with a coming-of-age story that captures the heady fun (and danger) of being young and newly independent.
The film opens with shots of forbidding looking communist-era housing blocks and nuclear towers under an icy sky as little Polina (Veronika Zhovnytska) and her mother make their way on the bus to a provincial town’s ballet academy outside of Moscow. Teenage Polina (now played by Anastasia Shevtsova of the Mariinsky Ballet) is off to a rough start with typically Soviet-style grouchy and stentorian instructors, but she’ll gain two assets at the school, one of which will undermine the other. The first prize is the training to pass the exam for the Bolshoi Ballet, with all the patriotic pride that cultural icon confers.
The second prize is Adrien (Niels Schneider), the hunky French dancer training at the academy, with whom Polina becomes infatuated. She also falls in love at first sight with modern dance, so when Adrien invites her to France to join a modern dance troupe, Polina hardly thinks twice, ditching the Bolshoi and her parents, who have made sacrifices for her career. Perhaps Polina is relieved to get away; her father is involved with the mafia, and danger to the family hums in the background.
Dancing alongside Adrien in sunny Aix-en-Provence proves harder than anticipated, and Polina’s ego (and body) suffers injuries that derail her performance. Juliette Binoche is on hand, adding some depth to a supporting role as a perceptive mentor who urges the dancer to see outside her youthful solipsism (“An artist is an observer”) and deals her an affectionate but firm comeuppance. The result: Polina finds herself cut loose.
The movie gains intensity as Polina makes her way to Antwerp, begging for work, taking risks among dodgy characters, and simply learning how to live on her own. To recapture the joy of dance, Polina stays away from dance for awhile, and her journey back to it with a new friend (Paris Opera Ballet dancer Jérémie Bélingard) comes across as touching and exciting. Georges Lechaptois’s cinematography, stylishly lit and airy, captures the dancers’ balance of giddy flight and supreme control. Heavily choreographed scenes impress, but spontaneous, playful numbers in the shadow of a Russian nuclear plant or at the dusky port of Antwerp communicate the sheer desire to burst into movement and feel real, natural, and joyous.
Polina’s mafia backdrop fails to really convince and adds a discordant note of melodrama. But the open-ended conclusion feels right. Restored to the medium most vital for her, Polina goes on dancing—and living—with daring and talent, no matter the outcome.