Like the spare, elegant graphic novel by Bastien Vivès on which it is based, Polina, the new film from Valérie Müller and Angelin Preljocaj, has an arresting immediacy about it from the start. The film tells the story of a girl (played by Anastasia Shevtsova, herself a dancer with the Russian Mariinsky Theater) who, after studying with a rather repressive ballet teacher as a child, breaks away to study under different masters—most notably Liria, a modern dance choreographer based in Aix-en-Provence, played here with understated force by Juliette Binoche.

As it turns out, Polina's most important master is herself, as the film shows her gradual trajectory from a confident student into a person who guides other dancers. The route she take to get to that point is not necessarily smooth, and Polina finds herself in numerous locales and circumstances before her "arrival"; at times, the film reads like a distant descendant of Agnes Varda's Vagabond. 

In adapting the graphic novel, Müller and Preljocaj took considerable liberties, while maintaining the essential integrity of the original story. No Film School caught up with Müller, whose other films include Le monde de Fred and Les hommes s'en souviendront, to discuss the complexities of adaptation and how the heart of the graphic novel's story was brought to full flowering in this film.

No Film School: Given that when you adapt anything, be it a regular text novel or a graphic novel, you're essentially translating it from one form into another, what would you say was the most complicated part of adapting Bastien Vivès's graphic novel into a screenplay?

Valérie Müller: What we had wanted to do is really draw out the narrative part of the story, more than what’s present in the actual graphic novel. So for us, what we looked to do with the graphic novel was keep the central character of Polina. Polina is a very contemporary girl; she has a big personality, very modern in that sense. She also avoids the clichés of the standard “young girl who wants to be a ballerina” sort of character. But we also wanted to keep the relationship she has with her first ballet teacher, who really forms her, and guides her. But from there, what we really wanted to do was develop for Polina her own universe—her own emotional universe, showing what her family life was like, and also positioning her in a social environment. We wanted to show, realistically, what the path is for someone who wants to become a dancer, and what’s involved in achieving that.

NFS: I noticed that the closest equivalent to the character of Liria in the film was Mikhail, in the graphic novel. In the second part of the movie, Liria is an important character in that she assists in Polina’s development. In the graphic novel, Mikhail is more of a daunting, impressionistically portrayed character—while in the film, Liria is fairly down-to-earth and unaffected. I'm just wondering what caused you to transform the character in this way.

Müller: I think one of the main reasons is that in the actual graphic novel, there was a predominance of male characters, and I felt that in doing the adaptation, it was really very important that this is a story about a young girl and the process she goes through to become a woman, but also an artist and a creator herself. And I think that in this case she really needed someone to serve as a reference for her, a female role model, so that she could see what could be achieved. In the comic itself, that was missing. Another reason the character changed to a female figure is that there are many great female choreographers in modern dance.

PolinaAnastasia Shevtsova as the eponymous 'Polina'.Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories

NFS: The graphic novel has a very spare visual style; often the reader is just focusing on one figure, which is usually Polina, whereas in the film, there’s a sense of a whole world around her, a very full, lush, heavily populated community. Could you say a little bit about the process of working against the graphic style of the novel?

Müller: I think we had a great deal of freedom in adapting the visual look of the graphic novel into a film because, after all, when you’re adapting—and I think this is true of adapting any work—you’re actually adapting into another form of expression, and so of course there are going to be changes, and there are going to be opportunities to change things in ways that would not exist in the other form. So here, we had discussed with the author of the comic, Bastien Vivès, that we would depart from the form of the original quite a lot. As you mentioned, the images are very spare, and they are very simple, so we were enabled by that simplicity to imagine her entire universe, in particular the universe that served as her inspiration to create. For example, we have nature, we have architecture, we have the conflict between nature and architecture in the city environment: all things you can’t really represent in a graphic novel, but you can represent on screen. And so that was one of the freedoms that we had, in showing Polina's journey from dancer to creator.

 "The whole idea of movement is at the core of what the form of the film is."

NFS: In a film like this, in which there are many dancing scenes, without dialogue, how did the dancing figure into the writing of the screenplay? Are there indications of the nature of the dance, of the way it’s supposed to appear in the film itself, or is that something that developed as the film was being made?

Müller: Angelin and I don’t want to sound too didactic about the way it was done, but it was part of a whole process. What we wanted to do in the film was to really show what it is to be a dancer, to show all of the stages, from beginning to work as a dancer, the dancer’s apprenticeship, how the dancer works, how the dancer discovers her body and its capabilities, and how she begins to master her skill, what is entailed in that, and what difficulties she encounters. All of this was part of a whole process, and our goal was not really to make the film like a documentary, in that sense, because it could crowd out the fictional story that comes with the film. We really wanted all of these things to be written in a way that would show the viewer, who may not be familiar with it, what this world of dance is, what it entails for people who are a part of it. And so when all of these things were written, they were really written with this underlying idea in mind.

Juliette Binoche in 'Polina'Juliette Binoche in 'Polina'.Credit: Oscilloscope Laboratories

NFS: It’s often said that the content of something can dictate the form. In this case, given that the movement of the plot shows Polina going from place to place, I’m wondering if that character’s physical movement, combined with the fact that she's a dancer, affected your vision of the way the story moved.

Müller: I think that the whole idea of movement is at the core of what the form of the film is. We wanted to make a film on dance that itself dances. Movement is present in all parts of the film: it’s in how she works, how she learns to be a dancer, but there’s also this perpetual movement that’s part of her quest for discovery of herself, of her body, of her technique. There’s also an aural movement here that’s reflective of life itself—and that’s the kind of form we wanted the film to have.