One of the defining movie moments of the last 40 years — a sequence at once ridiculous, iconic, and enthralling — is the ballet-school audition climax of “Flashdance,” in which the aspiring dance superstar played by Jennifer Beals prances and struts and gyrates and, finally, break-dances to the synth-pop glory of Giorgio Moroder and Irene Cara, wowing the world of highbrow snoot and overthrowing it at the same time. “Polina,” co-directed by Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj, turns the mythology of that sequence into a European art film — or, more precisely, stretches it out into a teasingly austere, deliberately paced movie about a young Russian ballerina’s progress from elegant classical drone to free-spirited something-or-other.
Polina (Anastasia Shevtsova) has grown up in a joyless land of oppression, nuclear power plants, and occupational dead ends, and it’s her family’s dream that she’ll use her talent as a dancer to ascend. Her father, Anton (Miglen Mirtchev), is some sort of gold-chain-wearing shady operator who’s perpetually in hock to the Mob, which means that thugs will burst into his home — or trash it when he’s not around — to make sure that he pays his debts and does what he’s told. The movie treats this situation as the essence of Russian workaday normality, as if he were a plumber. Both Anton and his wife, Natalia (Kseniya Kutepova), want their beloved daughter to triumph through dance, but it’s as if they were saying, “Escape from our world, because it’s your only hope.”
Polina gets admitted to a somberly prestigious dance school, and for a few scenes we see her as a coltish 8-year-old (played by Veronika Zhovnytska) who comes under the tutelage of one of those hard-driving Balanchinian drill instructors. The scowling Bojinski (Aleksey Guskov), who’s like a past-his-prime Rudolf Nureyev crossed with Tommy Lee Jones, singles her out to give her a hard time (“You’re not very limber”), but, of course, that’s just because he can see what extraordinary potential she has. The whole trajectory of a movie like this one is based on the audience’s desire to see a diamond-in-the-rough sculpted into a dazzling jewel, and for a while it looks like that’s how it’s going, especially when Polina is accepted into the Bolshoi Academy.
The co-director, Angelin Preljocaj, is a reknowned French choreographer, and the fact that he shares directing credit suggests the sort of dance-film trance-out the filmmakers are going for. “Polina,” based on a graphic novel, tries in its very form to mirror the contours of a dancer’s sensibility. There are lengthy stretches without much dialogue, and Anastasia Shevtsova, a dancer with the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theater who invests Polina with a determination as free-floating as it is stubborn, is held up as a ripe visual object for the audience’s contemplation. She resembles the young Meg Tilly, and her serene, rose-lipped beauty is presented as a model-like mask that contains multitudes of feeling.
Or, at least, that’s the idea. At moments, “Polina” recalls Robert Altman’s “The Company,” which had a minimum of dialogue yet located an invisible thread of action in a dancer’s habits, rituals, glories, and calamities. It caught the interconnectedness of movement and life. “Polina” doesn’t have the craftsmanship to pull that off. The film is intriguing on the surface, but the scenes have no interior hum, because they haven’t been conceived psychologically.
What propels the movie is a kind of high-vs.-low, classical-vs.-contemporary, ballet-studio-vs.-street iconography. Just when she’s supposed to be hunkering down at the Bolshoi Academy, Polina cuts and runs. She has an affair with one of her classmates, Adrien (Niels Schneider), a sexy French dancer who looks like Michelangelo’s David, and she decides, for no good reason, to follow him to France. Or does she have a good reason?
Polina leaves her ballet career in the dust because it bores her, and maybe that’s reason enough. Yet she still yearns to dance, so she joins Adrien at a modern-dance school in Aix-en-Provence, run by an instructor played by Juliette Binoche, who’s critical of Polina because she’s so rigidly trained. Binoche, all too briefly, gives the movie some dramatic snap, and we of course want to see her loft Polina into the stratosphere of majestic movement. But the thrust of “Polina” is that its heroine needs to fall from grace before she can rise.
She keeps messing up and flaking out, abandoning Binoche’s school the same way she did the Bolshoi, becoming a cocktail waitress in a punky dive in Antwerp. It’s all supposed to be because she’s now listening to her inner voice. Yet if only the audience felt connected to that voice. “Polina” is vivid as dance but vague as drama. Polina hooks up with a crew of street dancers, and improvises a number to the EDM sounds of 79D, flinging her long legs around in a style that suggests ballet gone wild. By the end, you see the road she’s taken, and why she had to go there, but it’s a road viewed almost entirely from the outside. You may seriously end up wishing for the comparative inner journey you got — yes — in “Flashdance.”