For a short while, the French-made film Polina toes the line of traditional ballet narrative: a heroine's journey from exceptional promise through bundled hurdles, all the way to the triumph of the tutu. Then the movie takes a sharp left turn into a whole other fairy tale, a vibrantly watchable modern dance musical with bits of histrionic life thrown in and the chance to see Juliette Binoche strut some smooth moves of her own. The almighty tutu gets no more than a cameo as a soft bed for two young principal dancers whose hormones run wild. It's curtains for rigid Bolshoi orthodoxy as a young Russian ballerina on the cusp of stardom pries herself loose and goes her own way in life and art.
Saint Petersburg ballerina Anastasia Shevtsova stars as Polina, a sinuous nymph with leprechaun eyes whose poor but ambitious parents thrust her into rigorous training with Bojinski (Aleksei Guskov), a craggy martinet and every inch the barking maestro who stalks through every ballerina myth worth its salt. The scary dude devotes himself to taming his willful charge ("You're not very limber," he rasps as child Polina, played by Veronika Zhovnytska, positions her leg in close proximity to her chin) while grooming her to audition for the sacred Bolshoi. Only there's a kink in the story that allows writer and co-director Valerie Muller to take a brief but unmistakable jab at the rigors of Soviet aesthetics. Bojinksi, we learn, was once an artistic renegade himself. So when Polina decamps for modern dance training in the West, he's less devastated than the parents who have sacrificed their all for their daughter.
Love and hard knocks await in Aix-en-Provence, where Binoche's contemporary dance choreographer Liria is no more inclined than Bojinski to indulge — or, crucially, stamp out — Polina's willful obstinacy, a double-edged sword that gets in the girl's way even as it propels her into a creative destiny more in tune with the diverse, edgy rhythms of urban life.
Co-directed by Muller with the French-Albanian choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, Polina is adapted from a graphic novel by Bastien Vives, a form that suits Polina's journey to modernity but doesn't translate all that well into realist narrative. Which may be why the film's fluid visual rhythms are hampered by a clunky screenplay that's riddled with cliché and strands poor Binoche in portentous credos ("All my work is about absence") when she really means to galvanize Polina to quit being such a diva and get a life in the spit and grit of the city.
It's there that Polina springs to vivid life as a winsome hip-hop ballet. A classically trained choreographer who transitioned to contemporary dance, Preljocaj has an exuberant grasp of the form's democratizing power to plunder everyday gesture and make it heroic. The dance sequences are ecstatically photographed by George Lechaptois against a dramatic Antwerp skyline etched with cranes, where Polina teams up with a fetching hip-hop choreographer (Jeremie Belingard). Together the pair stitch together moves observed in the subway and the sleazy bar where Polina has found plebeian community. If that's its own kind of cliché, it's a lovely one for our age — and generous enough to dispatch Polina on a short trip home at the climax, to pay tribute to the classicist who both trained her and set her free.