When it comes to ballet films, there are a few good ones, ranging from ‘The Red Shoes’ (1948) to ‘Billy Elliot’ and ‘Center Stage’ (both released in 2000) and of course, ‘Black Swan’ (2010), which arguably gave Natalie Portman the role of her lifetime and even won her an Oscar for Best Actress. If my memory serves me right, the last time I watched a ballet film was Luca Guadagnino’s wildly bloated and pretentious 2018 remake of Dario Argento’s ‘Suspiria’.
Now, joining the ever-growing list of ballet films is ‘Birds of Paradise’, which is currently available for streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith of ‘Buster’s Mal Heart’ fame, the film follows Kate Sanders (Diana Silvers) from Virginia who received a scholarship to join the elite ballet academy in Paris, France. We learn that Kate used to be a basketball player before she started dancing for five years. And while she is great in what she does back in the US, things are radically different in Paris. Unlike her fellow dancers, the academy’s dance instructor Madame Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset), finds Kate lacking the necessary grace and precision of a true ballet dancer. But Kate refuses to give up and determines to prove herself she has what it takes to become a ballet dancer.
Enter Marine (Kristine Froseth), the rich daughter of the American ambassador and once a promising number-one ballet dancer in the academy, who recently mourned the death of her twin brother and dance partner, Ollie. She makes a comeback to the academy and determines to win the coveted prize for Ollie. The first time her character is introduced, she gets off to a bad start with Kate. They don’t get along at first, and if that’s not enough, Kate finds out she has to share a room with her.
As the film progresses, the story details how Kate and Marine go from being rivals to becoming unlikely best friends and even ending up as far as making a pact “to win the prize together or not at all.” The prize in question turns out to be a contract to join the prestigious Opéra national de Paris.
Based upon A.K. Small’s 2019 novel ‘Bright Burning Stars,’ Sarah Adina Smith has a good eye for visuals. Or, more specifically, the seductive and, at times, surreal visual quality of the film is striking. At one point, there’s a stylized fever-dream moment where Kate and Marine go to an underground club called Jungle and engaged in a psychedelic dance after swallowing worms of sorts.
Elsewhere, Smith captures the elegant flow of the dancers’ ballet performances with some of her graceful camera movements. Speaking of the ballet performances, the overall choreography is top-notch, while Ellen Reid’s atmospheric score complements the mood of the film. I also love the way Smith inserted chapter breaks between scenes, where she made good use of the font spacing between the time left and the prize over a bright pink background.
While ‘Birds of Paradise’ triumphs on the technical fronts, the story is sadly a mixed bag. Smith, who also adapted the screenplay, botches her potential to delve deeper into the relationship between Kate and Marine. Diana Silvers and Kristine Froseth — both up-and-coming actresses known for their respective roles in 2019’s ‘Booksmart’ and Netflix’s ‘Sierra Burgess is a Loser’ (2018) — are frankly well-cast in this film. They look great together as two contrasting individuals from different backgrounds. And judging from the surface level, each of them do a good job portraying their roles, notably Froseth’s sneaky turn as Marine. As for the supporting cast, Jacqueline Bisset impressed me the most with her clinical role as Madame Brunelle.
The problem here lies with all the promising teases that Smith seems to be aiming for. I was half expecting the film is going full blast on the ‘Black Swan’-like storytelling route but it lacks the psychological insight of that Darren Aronofsky’s acclaimed drama. There are even a few hints that the film ventures into the bleak depiction of a cutthroat world of competitive ballet dancing, something more in line with Starz’s 2015 miniseries ‘Flesh and Bone’. But then again, the film mostly misses that necessary edge too. If only Smith was willing to take a few steps further and not making everything a little too restrained or conventional, the result might have been an engaging piece of work.
By the time ‘Birds of Paradise’ reaches the inevitable conclusion where the ballet dancers are competing for the prize, Smith has already run out of steam and has lost a chance to end the film on a compelling note.
Read More: Where Was Birds of Paradise Filmed?