Bastien Vivès first came to our attention in 2011 when Cape published his book, A Taste of Chlorine, a beautiful dream of a graphic novel largely set within a swimming pool, the lavish cyan a glorious backdrop for the sometimes hard and sometimes fluid lines created by the people who moved through it, a warm almost narcotic ambience flooding the space around the gentle love story. His latest book, Polina, is in some ways quite different, quite strikingly different, not least in terms of colour or rather the lack thereof. The story, of Polina, a young girl who studies ballet and grows, and struggles, to be a professional dancer, is sketched out against a nondescript grey background, the characters rendered in ink (splashes of hair and beard looking like spilled India ink). This is not to demean the art of Polina in any way, merely to remark upon the difference. A great many characters do not have actual faces. We are told enough to glimpse them in the background. But just as a cameraman might use a blurred focus to narrow the gaze, so Vivès directs our eye where he wants it to go. At times – in the opening pages, later when Polina is a young woman engaged in adult friendships and relationships – the thickness of the ink suggests tumult, of sorts, and also helps to clarify the grace and space afforded the images of Polina dancing.
The art is obviously the first entry point into Polina, and it may be that you flick quickly through the pages to ascertain that, yes, this is the way that Polina looks before settling down to the business of reading the book. We first meet Polina in the back seat of her mother’s car, seemingly swallowed up in an oversized coat as her mother gently berates her (‘Even if it hurts make sure not to show it’) on the way to an audition for entrance to an esteemed dance school. It is here that we first meet Professor Bojinsky, a man who is more beard than face and a character with a fierce reputation for exacting the highest possible standards from those who he doesn’t drive from the school. Although Bojinsky criticises Polina (‘You’re not very supple’), she has caught his eye and one version of the rest of the book would be the way in which he moulds and sculpts her, even when she is not directly under his tutelage. Polina is a girl apart, at least in the beginning, eschewing the distractions of boys for the intensity of study, and this intensity is recognised and leads to Polina being singled out for a part in a piece usually reserved for older students. This singling places pressure on Polina and she pulses, towards and away from, the fate Bojinsky would have for her (to be a great dancer).
Much of the book is taken up with the various pressures exerted upon Polina – by a teacher opposed to Bojinsky, by a young man who catches her eye – and just as she pulses, anemone-like, as a child, resisting and attracted by the promise of what Bojinsky hints at, so she pulses as a grown-up, subsuming her own skills to stay in with her boyfriend, running away to Berlin and accidental fame as the relationship flounders. It’s an absorbing tale, told in a similar fashion to a great many French films, hopping and skipping from one moment to the next, missing years and unfolding with the expectation that the reader will take certain things for granted (we see Polina jealously eye her friends and their easy familiarity with boys, the next she is in a grown up relationship of her very own). In some ways, there is a kind of love story at the book’s centre, as oblique in its own way as the love story at the centre of A Taste of Chlorine, but this love is founded on respect and mutual admiration, the platonic ideal that exists between an elderly teacher and his pupil.
Probably the key question a potential reader of Polina might have, though, is whether the book is of interest to anyone who isn’t interested in ballet as an art form. Even as I must admit I began the book with a similar feeling (Philistine that I am), love for or knowledge of ballet is not a prerequisite to enjoy the book. Both the art and the narrative are compelling and arresting and it isn’t long before the book has you in its gentle grip. It may feel like an unusual subject for a graphic novel (if such a thing can be said to exist), and it may feel familiar in some ways thanks to Black Swan (which isn’t really like Polina at all, there are no nightmares here, just real life), but Vivès has once again produced a work that is unusual, interesting and original.
Any Cop?: If you liked A Taste of Chlorine, we would say that we think you would like Polina as well.