Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Apr 27, 2019 3:00 pm 
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A great ballet dancer escapes the USSR - to be Nureyev

Rudolph Nureyev defected to the West from Soviet Russia in 1961, at he age of 23, while on a tour to Paris with the Kirov Ballet company. This is the subject of Ralph Fiennes' third outing as a director, The White Crow. For some reason, David Hare's script "inspired" by Julie Kavanagh's biography tries to fill in practically everything else that happened to Nureyev in his life up to that time. It's obvious from the film's last half hour that that wasn't necessary. The story of what happened in Paris would have been more than enough. Paris crystalizes everything Nureyev had been up to that moment.

Two other strains, of black and white flashbacks to his earliest life, including his birth on a train, and color images of his time in ballet school, are mostly not necessary. But even where they are, they're presented in a random, distracting manner that weakens momentum of the main story. It's bad editing. Nonetheless this is an enjoyable film, for what it is, and it's not like the secondary threads are badly filmed or acted. The lead is engaging, the main subject is exciting, and there is a lot of ballet.

Nureyev is played by a real dancer, Oleg Ivenko, who does all his own dancing, and some of it is spectacular and beautiful. Sergei Polunin (the "bad boy" ballet star of the 30-million-hit "Take Me to Church" dance video), with bleach-blonde hair, has a supporting role, as Yuri, a dancer colleague of Rudi's who's called on to play his "chaperone" sometimes in Paris. Ukrainian like Oleg, Polunin is reported to have helped Oleg train to dance in the style of Nureyev. The latter is said to have danced with raw, animal energy that grabbed the audience rather than technical perfection.

Watching some videos of Nureyev in his prime, I'm not sure this characterization is accurate. Anyway, Ivenko can't match Nureyev's dancing. Let's just think of this as the story of a star Soviet dancer who defected to the West, and pretend it wasn't Nureyev. And let's make allowances for Ivenko as a dancer who never acted in a movie before. He has said this called for his playing "an asshole." He does capture the arrogance of Nureyev, the anger, and the ego, if not the flamboyance. Ivenko is very appealing, very attractive in this role. And as an actor, Fiennes has coached him well.

A major figure of young "Rudik's" life was his teacher, Alexander Pushkin, head of the Kirov Ballet School. In a sense he "defected" to Kirov too, because he forced his way out of another ballet school, convinced that the Kirov was the one for him. In one astonishing scene, Nureyev confronts two directors of the Kirov who have entered the ballet class and forces them to leave - the directors - insisting they are unwelcome and distracting. That's how arrogant he was.

People have puzzled over why Nureyev chose to defect, saying the movie doesn't make that clear and calling it "opaque." Perhaps its apparent opacity comes from the failure of its separate strains to interact meaningfully (the irrelevant segments, the bad editing). But the puzzlement is strange. Obviously the film makes very clear what a free spirit Nureyev was, how boring and oppressive Soviet life was for him, and his enormous ambition. Anyway, at the end of the Kirov troupe's time in Paris, it looked like the Soviets were on the verge of locking Nureyev up and ending his rise to fame in one stroke. How could he do anything but break away? Everything that happened in Paris must have pointed in that direction.

The movie is somewhat timid about Nureyev's gayness, but hardly silent. It does briefly show him in bed with another young man, the young East German dancer Teja Kremke (Louis Hoffman of Netflix series "Dark"), and the sequence treats us to a gay-friendly shot of Hoffman attractively disrobing out of bed, with a full frontal nude shot (still a rarity) thrown in. Nureyev's main "relationship" in the film, not homo but hetero, is with his teacher Pushkin's wife, who after long having her eye on him, invites him to live with her and her husband when he gets injured, and then seduces him, saying "This had to happen eventually." Pushkin is played by Ralph Fiennes himself, in a distant, and later hangdog manner, speaking Russian. I wondered if his voice was dubbed by a native Russian speaker. But no, Fiennes knows some Russian, and spoke his part. Language-wise, everything is kept linguistically authentic.

After Nureyev gets to go to Paris with the Kirov dancers, his clashes with Soviet rules are magnified. He immediately goes out walking on his own in the city, goes to museums to see Picasso and Matisse. (Interestingly, he says that is essential to his dancing, and he goes to the Hermitage too.) He meets French people, with whom he practices the English he's been learning in private lessons. He becomes close, but not sexually, apparently, with Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos), a Chilean heiress whose boyfriend, the son of André Malraux, has just died in a car accident. Her prestige and influence are key to his defection. Exarchopoulos indeed is rather wooden as Clara Saint, but that seems not out of place for a stuffy rich girl, perhaps a tad too real for a movie; but Exarchopoulos has never seemed like a great actress. It was Léa Seydoux who made her look good in Blue Is the Warmest Color.

The White Crow is only middling cinema, but it's an exciting celebration of ballet history - and artistic liberation.

The White Crow, 127 mins., debuted at Telluride 31 August 2018, and played at London, Tokyo, Torino, Hong Kong, and several other international festivals. Its US theatrical release is from 26 April 2019. Metascore 60%.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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