Two beautiful, lithe, painfully thin dancers compete for a coveted spot in a ruthless ballet program, come together and apart as two halves of a whole amid drugs, hallucinations and sex until one breaks. You’d be right in thinking this sounds like the plot to Black Swan, the 2010 psychological drama from film-maker Darren Aronofsky that earned Natalie Portman a best actress Oscar. (Mila Kunis played her rival/love interest/colleague/friend.) It’s also essentially the arch of Birds of Paradise, a surreal ballerina drama released on Amazon this week, which flies awfully close to its critically acclaimed predecessor (down to the avian-themed title) and pales in comparison.
The film, written and directed by Sarah Adina Smith and based on AK Small’s 2019 novel Bright Burning Stars, also takes as it subject two miserably ethereal dancers cracking under the expectations of perfection and the grueling physical demands of ballet. Newcomer Kate (Diana Silvers, of Booksmart and Ma) is an American student at a Parisian ballet academy constrained by a number of insecurities – her tenuous scholarship, inability to speak French, guilt over her single father’s sacrifices, fear that one out-of-line risk will nip her career at the start. Perennial favorite Marine (Kristine Frøseth, star of Hulu’s Looking for Alaska) is hotheaded, nymph-like, eminently privileged and broken from the suicide of her twin brother Ollie. Both, it’s quickly revealed, are in competition for the Prize (the countdown to which supply the film’s intertitles): a contract with the Paris ballet, as selected by the steely, severe Madame Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset).
Marine and Kate start, naturally, as bitter rivals and roommates at the Victorian mansion that houses the academy (I can’t speak to the realism of this ballet academy, but the set is sufficiently otherworldly, out of time save for spare use of text messages and FaceTime). They fall together quickly – into the bed they share; into a pact to split the prize or not at all (a tougher pill for Kate, on scholarship from Marine’s rich but loveless ambassador family, to swallow); into a daze of drug-induced hallucinations that uncork their undiluted love for dance and, more pressingly for the film’s nearly two-hour runtime, initiate several surreal sequences of jungle leaves, glitter, and bodies in rapture.
Again, like Black Swan, the film’s primary focus is the eroticism of a doppelganger – yin and yang, one up and one down, two conventionally beautiful girls strung along the fault lines of inhibition and expression, restraint and heedlessness, desperation and privilege. Birds of Paradise is considerably less macabre than Black Swan, and more interested in the intoxicating, jagged intimacy of late adolescent female friendship; psychedelic dance sequences aside, Smith hones in on the glances and late-night pillow talks between two friends in the trenches together – a focus that provides some momentum other than competition, even if the dialogue can’t keep pace with the feelings suggested.
Which leads, ultimately to a film obsessed with the physicality of emotions that often feels removed from them, like observing a bonfire through a pane of glass. Silvers and Frøseth’s wide eyes and trembling lips suggest deep wells of feeling, but they can’t rise above dialogue that often baldly states their motivations – Kate, on the phone, tells her father about the extra shifts he worked to pay for dance; Marine tells a love interest to stay away because she’s dangerous. Ellen Reid’s ominous score, and a couple of cursed moments for pair’s rival ballerinas (including Gia, played by Eva Lomby), the group’s only black female dancer, who’s given an ounce of depth at the start and then mostly sidelined), make the movie feel more creepy than it actually turns out to be.
The film-maker’s push on the intense, scabby nature of rivalrous female friendship – especially as the girl’s dance fortunes shift and Marine opens up about her brother – but then drop it in favor of swift conclusion. The ballet sequences seem technically complicated, skillful and absorbing, but the filmed is weighed down by hallucinogenic sequences and metaphors-as-dialogue that feel redundant and indulgent, diminishing returns each time.
Birds of Paradise, then, settles into a weird, slightly unsettling middle-ground – beautiful yet hollow, intriguing yet distanced, skillfully performed without much of a beating heart. Like its principal dancers, its a portrait of contrasts, though the friction here doesn’t generate much heat.
Birds of Paradise is now available on Amazon Prime