Birds of Paradise follows the stories of two girls as they try and navigate the competitive space of a ballet institute in Paris. As they both vie for the first position, things begin to unravel more quickly than expected.
Story: Adapted from the novel Bright Burning Stars, Birds of Paradise charts the journey of two girls, hailing from contrasting social backgrounds, who try to make a mark in the world of ballet. Their initial animosity towards the other quickly turns to a close bond forged despite trying conditions. However, the stringent setup at their ballet institute in Paris pushes them towards different directions and they both develop into their own persons.
Ballet and its harsh realities have been a Hollywood favourite for quite some time. Whether it be Archers’ soft yet tragic saga The Red Shoes (1948), Dario Argento’s evocative Suspiria (2018), or even Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller Black Swan (2010), ballet brutalities have almost carved a niche for itself in the film sector. Not only does this theme expose the vulnerabilities of surviving a cut-throat environment, but it also spotlights the intricate workings of femininity. Thus, it is sad and ironic that only a few women have been able to grace positions of agency that can narrate stories of troubled ballerinas. And it is this very fact that sets Sarah Adina Smith’s Birds of Paradise apart from the remaining pack. Smith painstakingly stitches the quirks from all the above features to build a gritty, dark, edgy yet beautiful tale on ambition.
Based on A.K. Small’s young adult book titled Bright Burning Stars, Birds of Paradise examines Kate (Diana Silvers) and Marine (Kristine Froseth) as they battle it out for the top position at Paris’ famed ballet institute.
Smith carefully chalks the glaring dissimilarities between the two girls — while one (Kate) is the unsophisticated outsider; the ‘other’ who hails from humble Virginia (US) and has worked her way hard through scholarships, the other (Marine) is a girl raised in the lap of suave privilege, being the daughter of the American ambassador. But Marine has never lost focus either, making ballet her life-long goal. In fact, the recent death of her twin brother Ollie, who dies by suicide, works as a catalyst for her to push herself harder, almost like a “got to do this for Ollie” if you will.
Smith’s world in Birds of Paradise is all about the apathy and competitiveness. Having collaborated with cinematographer Shaheen Seth, choreographer Celia Rowson-Hall and composer Ellen Reid yet again, Smith depicts an unforgiving environment that often indulges in debauchery. Drugs and sex run deep within the stressful ambience of dance, making the lines of propriety blurrier by the minute.
The two girls begin as enemies but soon lean on each other for support. Marine, who misses her brother Ollie constantly, tries to substitute Kate’s presence with it. They become each other’s most prized confidantes and promise that they’ll win the top prize together. But within the course of the film, it becomes clear that the prospect is unimaginable. The two react differently to the growing stringency within the unforgiving aura of the school. Madame Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset) and her staunch ways engulf Kate, while Marine is left with little choice but to break away.
The narrative may be quite hackneyed (what with your stories of betrayals and competitive spirits running high) but the treatment of the film wins brownie points. The uber-cool YA approach that the cinematography takes, instils a sense of urgency to the plot. The sharp edits and Reid’s obscurest electronic score perfectly complements Rowson-Hall’s choreography, which subverts the traditional elite nature of ballet with contemporary dance forms. The set designs are purposely made to look starkly opposite to each other. The pristine white of the studio that witnesses the ballet battles are keenly placed against the wild, psychedelic hues of the hedonistic environment at the underground club Jungle. Seth steps up with brilliant cinematography that aptly captures each mood but also gives the film an overall feel of unrealism and dreaminess.
Birds of Paradise has promising young talents. Both lead actresses show maturity while portraying their roles. Sufficiently believable, the two deliver compelling performances that will have viewers invest in their stories immediately.
Verdict: Despite its cinematic quirks, Birds of Paradise feels whitewashed in its ability to function as a piercing narrative. It never clearly makes a point, just hovers around it for a while. Instead of a biting commentary on death, glamour, ambition, drugs and the like, Birds of Paradise becomes a mild warning sign for audiences to “maybe not do this.”