In The White Crow, young Rudolf Nureyev (played by Oleg Ivenko) first arrives in Paris to perform with St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre ballet troupe, but his immediate desire is to visit the Louvre. “I want The Raft to myself,” he says, referring to Géricault’s 1818 large-scale masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa. Nureyev’s yearning is significant to his character and his striver’s experience in the Soviet working class. Art is the raft that carries Nureyev from strict Russian conformity to the freedom his individual egotistic personality needs and that he finds in the West.
There is so much patronizing in contemporary immigration film — usually about Africans, as in Grianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea, or about Central Americans, as in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre — that we have lost sight of the most important principles. The White Crow observes immigration experience through the idiosyncrasy of a famous artist rather than in “humanitarian crisis” platitudes, the meanings of which shift according to whoever is mouthing them.
Because Nureyev’s citizen-of-the-world identity is not a political issue, The White Crow avoids the usual sanctimony associated with Western attitudes toward immigration. (Think of those maudlin Statue of Liberty tales that politicians exploit and movies rarely get right – only Jim Sheridan’s In America and the first half of Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson came close to justifying “beautiful mosaic” corniness, and it eventually succumbed to piety.)
As The White Crow’s title suggests, its perspective derives from the Russian folk metaphor of “the white crow,” which describes an unusual person, an outsider. The film is clear-eyed about immigration because it focuses on a privileged artist’s selfishness, the part of his humanity that is inseparable from his ambition and probably inherent to his talent.
Ivenko actually resembles Mikhail Baryshnikov, but he can certainly dance the Rudolf role, and he plays it with youthful zest. Nureyev’s first emotional connection in the West comes when he breaches KGB protocol at an official meet-and-greet by daring to approach French dancer Pierre Lacotte (Raphaël Personnaz). Lacotte looks at the brash Russian with intense interest — two pairs of wide eyes flash.
In their commiseration on the roof of the Paris Opera, Lacotte tells Nureyev, “Art is to learn from.” This turns out to be the guiding principle of director Ralph Fiennes (who also plays the role of Nureyev’s ballet instructor, Pushkin) and screenwriter David Hare. Key scenes of Nureyev in isolated rehearsal sessions are intercut with scenes of the infatuated dance protégé and tourist enraptured at the Louvre; his close examinations of large, sensual, smooth-muscled sculptures serve almost as fantasy allegories for his sexual privacy.
Fiennes and Hare steer clear of banalities — including the subplot of Pushkin’s insistence that Nureyev live with him and his wife, which leads to fairly restrained infidelity and hints of deviance (although some Ken Russell brazenness might have gone deeper). Fiennes and Hare’s discretion emphasize cultural appreciation over politics, which ultimately unbalances the narrative: When Nureyev makes his 1961 defection, the meaning of the event — confirming memories of The Raft — doesn’t have the dramatic impact they should.
Nureyev’s stubbornness is well established in scenes where he haughtily joins the Parisian elite, especially a restaurant scene with socialite Clara Saint (Adèle Exarchopoulos) that raises class fears from his background. It will figure in the famous moment at Le Bourget airport when he is poised between KGB officials and French police and fearfully contemplates his steps toward asylum.
The individual’s sense of freedom characterized his artistic reputation. “Your technique is clumsy, but your spirit is perfect. You take the stage!” Lacotte says with admiration. Clara Saint, a helpful intimate of André Malraux’s, France’s minister of culture, encourages boldness when insisting that Nureyev fight his fears and ask for what he wants. Either Hare fumbles this decisive incident or Fiennes stages it poorly.
By film’s end, Hare and Fiennes do not pity the poor immigrant’s ethical dilemma (pace Bob Dylan). Instead, they recall dance critic Arlene Croce’s summation: “It was his pride and idealism, which sometimes took the form of defensiveness, that were so moving. Nureyev has got the world to accept him exactly as he is, because that is how he accepts himself.” The freedom that our Founding Fathers articulated as an emanation of a man’s soul is apparent in Nureyev, the white crow.