Directed by Sarah Adina Smith, Birds of Paradise follows Kate Sanders (Diana Silvers) and Marine (Kristine Froseth), two ballet dancers coveting the highly esteemed prize of joining the Opéra national de Paris. Their competition is ruthless, and the judges are unforgiving; only one male and one female dancer can win a spot with the company, and the rest will fade into irrelevance.
Kate hails from Virginia, and is ridiculed for being too awkward, too boyish, and too out of place. As for Marine, her twin brother Ollie, who doubled as her dancing partner, committed suicide just months earlier. Now, she’s seeking to reclaim her title as the best for both their sakes. But things start off on the wrong foot between the two girls when Kate and Marine get into a physical fight on the very first day. Hours later, they find out they’re sharing a room at the company’s designated boarding house.
As both girls begin to form a friendship amidst their rivalry, they slowly reveal their hardships to one another, and why the competition is so important. Marine has lost the other half of her soul and has a very rocky relationship with her mother who doesn’t respect her as an artist or love her as a daughter. By winning, she’ll be able to prove herself and escape the confines of her home. In comparison, Kate has lost her mother, who was a dancer too, and it was her mother who inspired her to trade in her basketball sneakers for pointe shoes and joining the company will ensure that her spirit stays alive.
The girls make a pact to help and look out for each other, swearing to win the prize together or not at all. But beneath the glamour, mirrors, and satin ribbons, lies the dark underbelly of ballet; filled with drugs, body shaming, sabotage —both subtle and overt, sexual exploration and dangerous ambition. And regardless of what Kate and Marine say to each other’s face, the truth is only revealed when you find the blade sticking out your back.
Within the first five minutes, Birds of Paradise introduces long-standing rivalries between the dancers in the company, and hints of tragedy are dropped like lead weights. The film is defined by cerebral hallucinations, strange, neon-drenched moments, drains clogged with glitter and sharp tongues. The overall mood is serene, but it’s tainted by a predatory air especially when the dancers interact with one another.
The startling white walls of the ballet studio parallel the inside of a mental health facility; clean, stripped down, and suffocating despite the blinding brightness. This simple, though noticeable choice in set design lends itself well to the context of the film since the world of ballet, especially, is tainted by such unique sufferings.
Kate’s innocence is slowly and continually eroded throughout the piece and as viewers we can’t help but feel more and more helpless as it happens right before our eyes. She becomes someone we dislike, transforming into that strong bitch of a girl you must become to achieve greatness. Marine is the opposite. She is confident and talented at the beginning, but her grief is overwhelming. She engages in more and more self-sabotaging behaviour, prioritising ballet above all else so she won’t think about how her life is falling apart outside of it.
The relationship between Kate and Marine is volatile and intimate; one minute they’re best friends, the next they’re perfect enemies. Silver and Froseth are wonderful partners, and they convey tumultuous chemistry in every scene they share. Girls, after all, can be the cruelest to each other, capable of things they never imagined. Silvers and Froseth do not shy away from that pain but let it shape their performances into something relatable and vulnerable.
The story is adapted from A.K. Small’s novel “Bright Burning Stars”, who also wrote the screenplay, alongside Smith. In some ways, it presents a typical picture of ballet, even down to the stuffiness of Parisians towards foreigners. Yet, it authentically shows the struggles young people face as they try to prove themselves to their parents, mentors, and friends, gain independence and achieve something better.
Birds of Paradise can be likened to Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, as both pieces highlight the unstable realm of ballet, it’s stereotypes and how it’s characterised by passion that borders on unhealthy obsession. Black Swan is a fully-realised psychological horror, and its characters are mature and devoted. Smith’s piece can almost be interpreted as a sort of prequel; eventually Kate and Marine will find themselves in the same place as Natalie Portman’s Nina, vying for notoriety, just on a different scale.
Birds of Paradise is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video now
by Kacy Hogg
Kacy is an English Lit student living in the Great White North (no not Winterfell unfortunately), Canada. Her favourite films include the Harry Potter series, Cinderella, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Hangover, and Lady Bird. She’s also an avid binge-watcher of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. You can follow her on Twitter here: @KacHogg95