Originally a character in a graphic novel, Polina was brought to life by Angelin Preljocaj and Valérie Müller, a choreographer and a screenwriter. Polina is a rare and delightful film about a young dancer, groomed and trained to be a ballerina for the Bolshoi ballet. Prelojocaj’s first foray into film brings his masterful choreography to life through Muller’s script, using dance to help propel the narrative and using it to show Polina’s struggles as she strives to become a contemporary dancer.
The film is a stunning look at the dance world as seen through the eyes of Polina. Actress Juliette Binoche spent months preparing for her role and delivers a breathtaking performance in her key dance scene.
I caught up briefly with Muller and Preljocaj to talk about transforming Polina from an illustrated character into a flesh and blood woman in this stunning film.
How the idea come to you of turning Polina into a film?
Valérie Müller: We knew Bastien Vives before he wrote Polina, the author of the graphic novel on which the film is based. He also knew of Angelin’s work as choreographer, he had seen his work and that was an element already.
One reason we wanted to adapt it was the character of Polina herself. She’s a very strong character who outside of the standard cliché of a young girl who wants to become a ballerina, is a young woman who is very modern and could very easily have been a musician or someone who is interested in a particular sport. She has a passion in her life, but also has friends and family, and problems with her love life. She is someone who is alive and has a life we can identify with, but having her as this strong character enables us to show the path that is really taken to becoming a professional dancer or a choreographer.
I think the structure of the novel allowed us to do that, so we follow the the path as she goes from being just a student, to a dancer, and to a choreographer.
One thing that’s striking about this is her journey and showing her journey through dance and instead of dialogue.
Angelin Preljocaj: What we wanted to do was we wanted to make just about dance, but a film that dances. You can see in the character of Polina, she’s not a person of many words. She doesn’t express herself verbally a lot, but what she does is she expresses herself through the body and what we were interested in exploring was the way the body can express things that words are not really capable of expressing.
We had a long preparation process before we began shooting to develop that ability to convey the way the body moves.
Tell us more about that process. Because you’re communicating in the language of ballet and dance, you’re going so far beyond just lines and a script.
Valerie: We really decided early on that we would not have our dancers use stunt doubles, so everyone you see is really dancing. Because we were using our dancers as actors, and vice versa, there was considerable preparation involved. What I did was I had the actors and dancers work together and this allowed them to help each other and influence each other to learn more about the acting and dancing involved.
What you end up having is actors who are dancing and dancers who are acting which I find completely fascinating to watch.
With Juliette Binoche, she worked on some readings and worked with Anastasia, the actress who plays Polina, and gave her some of her experience as an actress. It was this back and forth process that informed the preparation.
There’s a sequence in the film where Juliette does that solo performance. What preparation went into that scene?
Angelin: That solo that Juliette does was something she worked on every day for six months so when you see her at that moment, she has six months of preparation and rehearsal behind her. She spent many hours watching me working with the dancers, learning how a choreographer interacts with dancers on the contemporary stage — because again what we often see in films are clichés. from the 19th century, about what a choreographer used to be like and how they treated the dancers. I wanted this to really be something without clichés and I wanted to show her role to be seen as someone who was very modern and in tune with the dancers.
How real is the journey of a dancer moving from company and becoming more a choreographer? I wonder what we see in film, is that something you see happening a lot?
Angelin: I think you’re correct in that because the life of dancer is much like a life of a nomad, they’re always in moving and traveling. They’re looking for techniques that work better for them on their bodies and they’re on a quest for what’s the best for them as artists. We see it in Polina because we see how that is expressed in her daily life in her daily movement.