Nina Sayers, the tortured heroine of Darren Aronofsky’s prima ballerina psychodrama “Black Swan,” might just thank her lucky stars if she saw “Over the Limit,” another relentless portrait of young female performers mentally and physically savaged in the name of perfection. This is no heightened horror film, however. The intense abuse captured in Marta Prus’s brilliant, diamond-hard documentary portrait of a Russian rhythmic gymnast’s punishing road to the 2016 Olympics is all too vividly real — just watching it induces veritable stomach cramps, though it’s impossible to turn away from the film’s whipcrack construction and expert manipulation of perspective.
A former rhythmic gymnast herself, Prus seems to equally adore the exquisite physicality of the discipline and abhor the psychological torment that goes into it. That said, no interest at all in the subject is required to find “Over the Limit” coolly riveting: If anything, the less you know about its beleaguered heroine, Margarita Mamun, and her arc, the more startling the film’s dramatic effect. The tight, tense result surely ranks among the great modern sports docs: Festival programmers and nonfic-friendly distributors will be running (and jumping, and twirling) to get this Polish-German-Finnish co-production on their books.
“You’re not a human being, you’re an athlete,” an incensed instructor tells an exhausted, emotionally overwhelmed Mamun, after the 20-year-old athlete desperately pleads the apparently verboten h-word in explaining her fragile state. It’s a line so perfectly horrifying, it’s a wonder it isn’t scripted: There may be a long history of memorably hardass coaches in fictional sports dramas, but we’ve rarely seen ones quite as viciously villainous as the two violently dour women who terrorize Mamun and her teammates with their uncompromising perfectionism and poison-mouthed critiques.
For perspective, the aforementioned quote comes from the relative good cop of the pair. Her less diplomatic superior routinely responds to a near-imperceptible flaw or tremble in Mamun’s practice routines with an unending flow of astonishing invective — “Go f— yourself with your shaking,” “You’re going to die, bitch,” “What a stupid loser” — that somehow loses none of its lacerating quality through repetition. It’s hardly a revelation that the world of competitive gymnastics is a cutthroat one of minimal mercy, but it’s heart-stopping to witness such extreme, unprotested bullying first-hand: If either of these gorgons popped up in the burlesque of “I, Tonya,” for example, you might think the writer was over-egging the grotesquerie a bit.
Prus, let it be said, overdoes nothing. Clocking in at a close-shaved but narratively robust 73 minutes, this is filmmaking as lean and precise as one of Mamun’s exhaustively choreographed routines — which, as crisply captured by cinematographer Adam Suzin’s agile camera, look pretty immaculate to the untrained eye, however loudly her coaches denigrate her. Yet it’s true that neither the young woman’s head, nor her heart, is quite in it: “Over the Limit” releases its information stringently, and it’s only gradually that we learn Mamun’s father is dying of cancer — a tragedy her coaches ghoulishly encourage her to mine for emotional reactions while performing.
The film, meanwhile, is happy to hang back from her: There is no narration, nor any interview footage, to give us direct access to Mamun’s inner life. Yet even (or perhaps especially) when she is maintaining her most stoically mask-like game face, her fatigue and insecurities are writ large behind the war-paint of her eye makeup; only when FaceTiming with her boyfriend, a male athlete on the Russian Olympic squad, does she relax into herself. The film’s acceptance of some inscrutability in its subject — even as the camera exactingly scrutinizes her movements, like a third, less judgmental coach — works twofold. The sense of panicked psychological isolation she feels as her Olympic training comes to a cruel head is palpably conveyed; furthermore, that distance ill prepares uninformed viewers for a late factual rug-pull that takes Mamun’s story into the realm of morally scorched fable.
Prus, who recently turned heads on the festival circuit with her 30-minute single-take narrative film “Hot and Cold,” directs with a serene formal rigor that never feels affected or stunt-ish. With sleek assistance from Suzin and editor Maciej Pawlinski, the film’s own most athletic feat is the subtle shifts and realignments of its gaze that variously make us see Mamun from the vantage points of her most and least sympathetic observers — and give us fleeting reflective flashes of how she might see herself.
From any angle, however, her performance is something to behold in wonder: “Over the Limit” is a film in thrall to the bodily beauty of rhythmic gymnastics, even as it underlines the mental violence that directs every dainty step. How much you can revel in the former while being ceaselessly subjected to the latter is a quandary that, in this darkly dazzling achievement, the audience and the artist tackle in unexpected tandem.