Birds of Paradise
“Style over substance” is a regular complaint heard from critics and audiences in regards to certain films. More often than not this assessment is accurate, because a filmmaker’s omission of tangible characters and situations by way of technical indulgence is a familiar problem in cinema that shows no signs of waning. Sometimes it is not a deliberate thing, but it remains the easiest pitfall for directors who have heart and intent for their story, but are then blinded to it by the exciting or elaborate production techniques at their disposal. Anyone lumbering Sarah Adina Smith’s Birds of Paradise with this criticism would be inaccurate to do so, however they would be skirting around the picture’s core problem.
Set at an elite ballet school in Paris, tomboyish underdog Kate (Diane Silvers) envies and competes with the rich and talented Marine (Kristine Froseth) and other pristine dancers for “the prize” (a placement to join the Opéra National de Paris). Each student has their own demons and insecurities, which are only worsened by the school’s strict authoritarians, overseen by the icy Madame Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset). Kate and Marine quickly turn from rivals to friends and back again in the midst of this frenzied, cutthroat, and at times psychedelic competition, where the only concerns among the dancers are drugs, jealously, betrayal and ballet.
It’s Black Swan crossed with All About Eve and a surreal splash of The Neon Demon, but is never quite as insightful or engaging as any of those. Director Smith paints the film with glossy and colourful visuals, and beautifully maintains some gliding camerawork to follow the dancers’ flowing performances. The script teases danger and consequences for the ballerinas’ unhealthy hunger for success, but unfortunately this doesn’t pay off well. The film intrigues when it fixates on the surprisingly perverse dance school environment, featuring Brunelle and her trapped rats, flippant pill-taking and bitter backstabbing, but slowly whittles all of this edginess away to regrettably become a blandly emotive story about Kate and Marine’s friendship.
While neither character is underwritten, neither is likeable enough to invest in. The mysterious Marine grows less interesting as more is revealed about her, while Kate never feels wide-eyed or vulnerable enough for an audience to properly sympathise with her. Their final scene only rings a dull parting note for a movie that initially promised a story as sensational and extravagant as its visuals. The director didn’t choose style over substance, just style with questionable substance.
Birds of Paradise is released on Amazon Prime Video on 24th September 2021.
Watch the trailer for Birds of Paradise here: