Birds of Paradise benefits from gorgeous compositions and dreamy direction, but it never quite reaches the heights its artful pirouetting suggests.
On paper, Sarah Adina Smith’s Birds of Paradise seems like a film where nothing should really work, one whose premise can promise only an upbeat Gen-Z riff on Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. And, well, that’s not completely wrong. The film’s plot follows an overfamiliar story that takes place within the world of an elite Parisian ballet academy. It’s the story of a (sisterly) friendship, rivalry, romance, obsession, and jealousy between naïve American newcomer, Kate (Diana Silvers), and the popular, affluent, and talented French queen bee, Marine (Kristine Froseth), who, after the death of her twin brother, is returned to compete alongside other students for winning a contract to join the prestigious Opéra National de Paris. Adapted from A.K. Small’s bestselling YA novel Bright Burning Stars, Birds of Paradise doesn’t bring much to the source material’s predictably saccharine, (melo)dramatic series of situations and interactions, especially frustrating as the choreography is precise and beautifully rendered in the dance sequences and there’s the potential for psychological depth given the characters’ work/obsession. But not much is done with it, nor with the darkness implied in depicting the cutthroat world of professional ballet world — it’s no surprise, then, that there are intertitles which continue to count down the weeks remaining until competition day and attempting to preserve some so-called suspense for the climactic finale.
But on the flip side, somehow, the absence of any genuinely well-structured and tautly-realized narrative, for better or worse, allows Adina Smith’s seductive directorial strategies to imbue the film with a relatively impressionistic effect and flair. And thanks to the various emotive and acting dynamics that the spellbinding young duo of Silvers and Froseth together create, the film succeeds beyond mere eye-catching status and delivers a deliberately insouciant, mellow sensual mood that Birds of Paradise truly benefits from — or, as is articulated in the film, “the pas de deux is chemistry made flesh” and “dance is a ritual of seduction.” Aesthetically — perhaps more indebted to Nicholas Winding Refn’s provocative style in The Neon Demon than Aronofsky’s more somber and grounded formalism in Black Swan — Adina Smith, through the lucid cinematography of her DP Shaheen Seth, renders Birds of Paradise into a very phat piece of artwork, as if its visuals were ripped right out of Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar editorials or something like fashion campaign commercials; and here, when they’re combined with the minimalistic white walls of the spacious, brightly-lit dance studio, the warm atmosphere of the two leads’ shared dorm-room, or in the surreal, floral dream sequences, all set to the ambient electronic score (composed by Ellen Reid), the impression isn’t far removed from the mysterious vibes one can also find in Dario Argento’s Suspiria or Phenomena — the magnificent appearance of Jacqueline Bisset in the role of the assertive, “devilish” instructress Madame Brunelleschi certainly adds more to this similarity.
But what ultimately makes Birds of Paradise into a quite captivating para-cinematic experience is that it can easily connect itself to an almost long-forgotten tradition of those mildly erotic and juvenile cult films that were popular mostly in the ’70s — works like those by the famous British photographer/filmmaker David Hamilton (Bilitis) or French filmmaker Nina Companeez (Faustine et le Bel Été) which likewise fix themselves around the notion of sexual awakening told through a dreamy tenor. That’s to say, Birds of Paradise has an inherently campy quality in it that functions even better by pushing its tawdry, conventional narrative to the background. And Adina Smith has effectively included her artistic statement in words offered from the film’s heartthrob character, top male dancer Felipe (Daniel Camargo), who at one point whispers to Kate: “Nobody pays to see perfection. They pay to see romance. Desire, dominance. Bodies touching bodies.” Regardless of whether perfection and romance are necessarily contradictory factors, Adine Smith vividly opts for the latter in Birds of Paradise. But while this is clearly what the director intends, she rarely treats this romance and eroticism and fantasy with enough verve, leaving Birds of Paradise to play out, for the most part, as a beautiful film which pirouettes too much and timidly refrains from ever attempting a grand jeté.
You can currently stream Sarah Adina Smith’s Birds of Paradise on Amazon Prime Video.