Ballet can be an elusive artistic form for those unfamiliar with it, in no small part due to its inaccessibility. Unfortunately, the opaque nature of the field often means that attempts to illuminate its inner workings fail, and these misrepresentations end up subverting the true nature of the traditional art. Nowhere is this more apparent than in films about dance. The latest addition is Amazon Studios’ “Birds of Paradise,” directed by Sarah Adina Smith and based on the novel “Bright Burning Stars” by A.K. Smalls. The film is an ambitious and fantastical psychological thriller which doesn’t shy away from emulating its predecessor “Black Swan.” Smith takes viewers into a dark web of friendship, sex, and betrayal, but disappoints in her depiction of the ballet world itself.
“Birds of Paradise” centers around two female protagonists: Kate Sanders (Diana Silvers) and Marine Durand (Kristine Froseth). Kate is an American newcomer on a scholarship at the highly competitive and foreign environment of the Paris Opera Ballet School after only training for four years. Meanwhile, Marine is the gifted star dancer of the school, as well as the daughter of the American ambassador to France, and harbors a troubled past and relationship to dance. The women share a turbulent and uncanny relationship, which starts in a (literal) catfight but quickly moves to an intense, sisterhood-level bond.
Sex underlies the entirety of the film. This is an unsurprising choice, and one that veers into problematic territory — not in the presence of sex itself, but the insinuation that dancing is inherently sexual. Early in the story, Kate goes to the star male student for help with her partnering skills. He takes her through a wildly irrelevant exercise, manipulating her body and telling her that the “perfect ballerina” is one who practices “total submission,” before having sex with her.
What is concerning beyond the questionable consent is the feeling of inevitability and the presentation of the actual work of dance as sexual. The camera work even adds to this sense, as it slinks over their limbs and often focuses on the man’s hands supporting the ballerina at her waist, sexualizing work that isn’t intended to be viewed as such. In light of the way that ballet and dance in general has a history of being hypersexualized — which i particularly damaging for young students — the way “Birds of Paradise” treats sexuality feels tone-deaf and detrimental to discourse around the topic.
The writing is often stilted and the plot twists predictable, undermining the believability of the characters and story. Scathing critiques from the ballet mistress, or a moment of empathy between Kate and the only Black woman at the school, echo with truth — but are presented in such a cliché form, and with such melodrama, that they feel inauthentic and hollow. Kate, who can’t afford to buy her own pointe shoes and has only been dancing for a few years, has potential to illuminate the inaccessibility and elitism of the ballet world, particularly in proximity to Marine, who has all the privilege and connections an aspiring ballerina could hope for. However, because the film is so focused on shock value and drama, paranoia and cattiness take the spotlight instead. Quieter moments that might generate true empathy, such as scenes of Kate putting in extra work to catch up, are relegated to a fleeting few montage shots.
When depicting the stormy and unpredictable waters of a young female friendship whose tensions are heightened by the added pressure of their artistic aspirations, “Birds of Paradise” is at its most clear and thoughtful. Kate and Marine cling to each other desperately: Kate needs a friend and guide in this foreign place, while Marine is looking for someone to fill the hole in her life left by her twin brother, who recently committed suicide. Silvers and Froseth have palpable chemistry here, and they depict the heady relationship brilliantly. But the two never quite make it off the bed of eggshells, and it is in this intricate dance of trust, competition, and search for self that the film finds an evocative story.
The actual dancing in the film is refreshingly high level, featuring true professional dancers such as Daniel Camargo (Royal Ballet), Solomon Golding (formerly Royal), or Eva Lomby. While Silvers and Forseth lack the precise technical skill of the professional dancers, they both hold their own with impressive competence, showing a clear foundation and lovely long lines. Forseth in particular shows remarkable movement quality and artistry in her contemporary solo at the end of the film.
As a film about the complexities of adolescent female friendship, “Birds of Paradise” is engaging, if a bit implausibly dramatic at times. As a dance film, however, it disappoints. Once again, the depiction of the ballet world clearly becomes secondary to the main themes of betrayal and drama, with the natural intensity of the art form used solely as a prop for a more thrilling plot. In the case of “Birds of Paradise,” this misuse is incredibly frustrating at a time when some progress towards facilitating meaningful and fruitful dialogue about issues within the industry is being made. Films about ballet can bring the traditional, exclusive, inaccessible art form to a wider audience, but they must take more care not to perpetuate harmful ideas of power, sex, and politics in the industry.
—Staff Writer Sara Komatsu can be reached at email@example.com.