Sarah Adina Smith’s tenacious film shines a spotlight on the gruelling underbelly of a highly competitive Parisian ballet company
A trippy nightmare. An impressive dance showcase. A psychological game of torment. Birds of Paradise shifts between cinematic identities with the ease of ballerinas moving between plies and mid-air spins. This film from writer-director Sarah Adina Smith, adapted from A.K. Small’s 2019 novel Bright Burning Stars, combines the cut-throat feminine energy of Thoroughbreds with the fiery competitiveness of Whiplash and Black Swan.
“Blessed is she who falls. Blessed is she who rises again.” A sentiment engraved on the heart of every ballerina who passes through Paris’ prestigious dance academy. As the sun rises over Paris, the elite prima ballerinas have already been awake for hours in rigorous rehearsals, their malleable limbs bending at ungodly angles with gravity-defying strength, all in the hopes of winning a contract for the Paris Opera's ballet company.
Fresh from Virginia, 18-year-old Kate (Diana Silvers) arrives on the doorstep of her new home with a scholarship, burning ambition, and a neatly packed bag in hand. After a prickly introduction with fellow dancer Marine (Kristine Froseth), which sees Kate receiving a roadhouse slap to the face, the pair discover they’re sharing a room. A one-bed scenario sets up an enemies-to-lovers narrative, though, like everything in this film, nothing is quite as it seems.
With an interwoven exploration of female sexuality, Birds of Paradise’s perfervid dancers engage in a ferocious and unyielding battle to emerge victorious. They’re willing to sacrifice everything, making even an encouraging smile inherently suspicious. Admittedly, Smith bundles so much nuance into this script that a lot goes unexplored. A narrative arc centred on Marine, who is grieving the loss of her brother and dance partner after his suicide, goes off in a wild direction that would have been better suited to a series format.
Yet in its cinematic format, Birds of Paradise is led by its subversive aesthetics. Encased in the white walls of the circular ballet training room, with oval windows that make the rehearsal space feel like a spaceship, the dancers appear as extraterrestrials; otherworldly creatures that move in an unfounded way. Smith’s camera pursues, capturing the ballerina’s movements through an intimate lens that glides as smoothly as they do. Beneath this elegance, however, Smith trains on grimaces, strained muscles and damaged toes. These morbidly dark flickers, sharing the frame with dainty grace, allow the dark thematics of the film to juxtapose the conventional, refined femininity of ballet.
The film’s most visually divisive moments venture into drug-induced sequences. The two young women, popping colourful pills and donning Venetian masks, step onto a hazy, glitter-covered dance floor. Tripping with flailing limbs, they still look ethereal, glowing under the neon blue light. “Dance is a ritual of seduction,” Madam Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset) reminds her students, and over the course of the Birds of Paradise, Kate and Marine discover female sexuality is the most powerful dance they can partake in.
This tenacious film, packed with lean bodies bending and bowing to reach success, incubates an intense narrative of eroding ambition. Ultimately, it forgoes the depth its subjects need to emerge fully-fledged, but Silvers dazzles nonetheless. She was magnifying in Booksmart, but Birds of Paradise sees her take on a lead role with the sharpest of poise, showcasing her mesmerising possibilities as a proper star.
Birds of Paradise is available on Amazon Prime from 24 September.Where to watch