Why did world-renowned Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defect? That’s the question I found myself Googling immediately after seeing Ralph Fiennes’ lovely, elegant, and curiously opaque “The White Crow,” an impressive, dance-heavy biopic that focuses on Nureyev’s childhood, training, and life-changing visit to Paris as part of the Kirov Ballet, culminating in his decision to seek asylum in France. For all its pleasures — among them generous helpings of dance and a true-life East-meets-West intrigue to rival fictive Cannes favorite “Cold War” — the film remains maddeningly ambiguous about his motives for cutting ties with the Soviet Union.
Of course, some things we can never know, although in this case, it feels like more of a creative choice than a historical one, leaving culture-savvy art-house audiences something to ponder after a classy — and respectfully sexy — night at the movies. (Sony Pictures Classics unveiled the film at the Telluride Film Festival but plans to hold its release until early 2019.) Such crowds are presumably familiar with the reputation Nureyev made for himself over the subsequent decades, dancing with nearly every world-class company before succumbing to AIDS in 1993.
Consider this an origin story, beginning, aptly enough, with his birth aboard a trans-Siberian train and ending, rather oddly, with what appears to be one of his earliest dance lessons. Those two flashbacks, along with perhaps half a dozen others, are rendered in heavily desaturated near-monochrome (the aspect ratio also switches to widescreen for these scenes), which stands out from the rest of the film, whose palette resembles classic Technicolor (and “The Red Shoes” in particular).
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Nureyev was a famously difficult personality, though “The White Crow” — scripted by David Hare (“The Hours”) and informed by Julie Kavanagh’s 2007 biography — presents a tamer if still temperamental picture, featuring Ukranian dancer Oleg Ivenko in his first film role, and a demanding one at that (delivered in a mix of Russian and thickly accented English). Ivenko, whose intense blue eyes and heavy brow suggest a Russian version of Alain Delon (they even have matching moles on the lower left cheek), conveys Nureyev’s fiery ego easily enough but lacks the … how shall we put this … flamboyance for which he was known.
Nureyev could be a screeching prima donna when things didn’t go his way (he reportedly threatened to commit suicide in Paris’ Le Bourget airport when his KGB handlers announced they planned to cut short his tour and send him back to Moscow), and frankly, it’s a pity that Ivenko doesn’t get to play that side of the character. In any case, it’s hard to imagine a less Communist personality than Nureyev, who was raised poor and trained by the state, but developed an ego somewhere along the way of the sort better suited to Western countries, where self-interest (versus personal sacrifice for the greater good) is a way of life.
That tension — the desire to be recognized and appreciated, rather than putting the team first — underlies Nureyev’s decisions once he reaches Paris in 1961. There, he befriends French dancer Pierre Lacotte (Raphaël Peronnaz), flirting with his friend Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), who’s mourning the death of her lover, who happens to be the son of André Malraux, France’s minister of cultural affairs — and a good ally to have when seeking political asylum.
As a director, Fiennes (whose beautifully restrained, revisionist Charles Dickens portrait “The Invisible Woman” this most closely resembles) favors low-key psychological subtlety over hyper-agitated showmanship. In other words, “The White Crow” is no “Black Swan” redux, which may explain why the version of Nureyev presented here seems relatively well behaved for such a diva (even his tantrums feel choreographed). Meanwhile, Fiennes the actor opts to play the film’s most understated role (if you look past the fact he delivers it entirely in Russian), that of Alexander Pushkin — not the 19th-century Russian poet but St. Petersburg’s most respected dance instructor, who sees something in Nureyev’s passion, prizing it above pure technical skill.
Pushkin’s wife, Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova), also takes a special interest in Nureyev, eventually inviting him into their private apartment, where she seduces the dancer right under her husband’s nose. “The White Crow” doesn’t shy away from Nureyev’s nontraditional love life — (still controversial enough in his home country that Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Nureyev” ballet was banned last summer. Though Fiennes generally prefers the “tasteful” approach (in which Nureyev stares longingly at paintings or nudes in the Louvre), he does show the rising star experimenting with partners of both genders: On the road, he longs for roommate Yuri Soloview (Sergei Polunin, a fellow Ukrainian ballet star), while back in the USSR, he explores his appetite for foreigners with German terper Teja Kremke (“Land of Mine” actor Louis Hoffman).
In any case, his relationship with Clara proves most intriguing — especially since Fiennes has cast the smolderingly sexy “Blue Is the Warmest Color” star very much against type. Wrapped in a headscarf and reserved, Exarchopoulos comes across cool as Jackie O. She’s clearly from a class far above Nureyev’s hardscrabble roots, but she responds to his coarse, direct attitude. While the Kirov company is in Paris, its KGB handlers impose tight curfews, shadowing Nureyev as he goes out partying with his new French friends to risqué cabarets and beatnik clubs.
It was this behavior that concerned the KGB, which twice ordered Nureyev’s minders to send him back to Russia. For years, it was believed that Nureyev had premeditated his defection, but “The White Crow” offers a different interpretation, treating it as a spontaneous decision — and therefore the most life-altering of his caprices. Although the film’s many ballet scenes are stunning, to say the least (Polunin and company perform their own dance numbers), it’s this climax at the airport that audiences have come to see, using whatever clues Fiennes has supplied before to answer the mysterious question of why he did it.