In Reviews

September 24th, 2021




The world of dance, and specifically ballet, is a fierce and unforgiving artform to be interested in. Boys and girls start as vessels of free spirit, filled with hope, wanting to expel their energy in a way that becomes liberating to the constrictions of living. As often with any sport of expression or athleticism, the hope is that the joy one receives from being a dancer would never leave them, and unfortunately that is not often the case. The world saw the toll that competition can take on a superior athlete like Simone Biles and the fierce competition of ballet has always made for spectacular drama in the realm of cinema. Birds of Paradise may have the DNA of Black Swan inside it, but it’s entirely unique in its narrative approach, telling a story about two teenage women, competing for a top prize at a Parisian ballet school. It begins with that fighting spirit and then morphs into a different interpretation of friendship and passion in these two women. Birds of Paradise is a freestyle approach, gracefully gliding, and then hitting the audience with devilish dramatics.

Birds of Paradise will rightfully be compared to Black Swan, but while audiences are looking for the similar beats, they will miss director Sarah Adina Smith’s own original creation. The Paris ballet school is run with an iron fist by Madame Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset delivering dagger sharp stares), where she relishes in judging a competition between students, where the winner earns a spot to perform at the Paris Opera. The battle is set and the stakes are high, but within Smith’s adaptation of A.K. Small’s novel Bright Burning Stars, is a complex expression of women surviving the dance world that wants to see them fight.

The main character is Kate Sanders (Diana Silvers), an American girl from Virginia at the school on a scholarship, with a father back home that gave up everything to make his daughter’s dream come true. The other American at the school is Marine Durand (Kristine Froseth), the daughter of the U.S.-French ambassador, a member of the school since she was nine, and a complicated case. Her twin brother recently committed suicide, which sent her into a tailspin, but now she’s come back to the school to claim her place away from Kate. It starts out as fist fights and insults, but the two soon realise their shared struggles, creating a pact to help one another, not allowing one dancer to succeed more than the other, or so they say.

Mixed between the narrative focus on the competition is a fierce and pulpy drama. Sarah Adina Smith is not afraid to get close to the themes of Aronofsky’s Black Swan, but turns sharply into the realm of Luca Guadagnino’s take on Suspiria. Scenes of dancing move like a call to awaken spirits. The sets are haunting mansions, crisp white dance studios, and school dorms that are more like upscale hostel rooms. The dance sequences are also closer to nightmares. Cinematography captures twirling spins and the graceful limbs of Silvers and Froseth. Their dancing is intricately edited to keep the performances authentic, while the dialogue reveals two rising star actors, playing two complex characters with fully realized story arcs. Smith never allows both characters to fully reveal themselves, building an incredible tension, where the friendship can fall to the floor at any moment.

Birds of Paradise is undoubtedly a surprise to me, a movie I had never heard of, and now I’m glad I did. It truly does have everything: sex, drugs, the ugly side of competition, betrayal, and a pair of excellent performances from Silvers and Froseth. Certain sequences painfully look similar to a Dior fragrance commercial and there’s also a sense that Birds of Paradise would benefit from a sharper horror side to it, like we see in a Suspiria or a Black Swan. Yet, Birds of Paradise is creating its own dance, using the type of choreography that sets it apart from the rest, and still reels us in with a frothy drama that we don’t see enough of these days. Birds of Paradise soars above expectations and sticks the landing.



Written by: Leo Brady

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