At the Paris Opéra in the late 19th century the young ballerinas were referred to as the “petits rats”. Degas’s famous sculpture, The Little Dancer, was based on one such rat, a 14-year-old named Marie van Goethem, who was dismissed from the school soon after and would never be heard from again. It’s presumed Marie became a prostitute because the rats from poor families were generally expected to do sexual favours for wealthy male patrons.
The ballet may seem glamorous but those who sought to become dancers in the Belle Époque led mean and sordid lives. It’s a little surprising to find that ballet students at the Paris Opéra today are still called “rats”, and still subject to the most brutal teaching regimes, although presumably no longer fair game for sexual predators.
Sarah Adina Smith’s Birds of Paradise tells the story of two 18-year-old American girls, Kate and Marine, competing in an élite class for a coveted place in the Paris ballet. It may be a big step up from Marie van Goethem’s day, but there’s enough sex, drugs, sadism and psychodrama to discourage doting parents from sending their daughters to ballet classes – or at least to Paris.
The film, screening on Amazon Prime, lacks the breathless drama of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), which remains the ultimate ballet horror movie. Smith’s main focus is the complex relationship between the two lead characters. It’s one of those movies that promises much but never delivers, largely because it tries to do too many things and does none of them thoroughly. Birds of Paradise is full of fleeting references and undigested influences.
Smith strives to show us the sheer physical agony endured by ballet students, but doesn’t dwell on the subject for too long. We’re expected to thrill to the fierce rivalry between competitors, but it’s a stop-start affair with more complacency than passion. Every so often there is a mildly psychedelic sequence that may be a drug induced hallucination, a nightmare, or a visit to an arty nightclub called The Jungle. The film flirts with the idea that the headmistress, Madame Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset), is a tyrant, but this side of her character is never developed, even allowing for a peculiar scene in which she shows off a rat in a cage and asks Kate to push a button that will gas the rodent.
There’s a hint of Black Swan, a soupçon of Suspiria, a touch of Whiplash, but it’s a lite version of each of these tales. By the end it feels like an episode of Project Runway. Smith creates some lukewarm suspense by counting down the days until “the Prize” is announced. It’s enough to keep us watching, but nobody’s pulse will be racing. Even the dance scenes are never as intense or involving as might be expected.
It’s best to think of Birds of Paradise as a perverse buddy movie in which the lead characters alternate between deep bonding and antagonism. Kate (Diana Silvers), is a gawky, raw-boned girl from a working-class background, who has made it to Paris on a scholarship and is desperate to succeed in the competition. Marine (Kristine Frøseth), is the daughter of the American ambassador to Paris – an icy, snobby woman (Caroline Goodall), who must be a Trump appointee. Marine speaks fluent French, smokes, and has contempt for the school’s rules and regulations.
Where Kate is naive, Marine is sophisticated and worldly. She’s also deeply disturbed, still grieving the apparent suicide of her twin brother, Ollie, another dancer at the school. The quasi-incestuous relationship with the dead brother shapes Marine’s entire personality. All her rebellious gestures spring from this singular tragedy. She and her parents have grown to loathe each other, as she flails around trying to fill the void in her life.
We find that the scholarship which has brought Kate to Paris was laid on by Marine’s parents, the Durands. They believed, however, they would be funding a male dancer, not competition for their daughter.
When Kate begins by making a clumsy remark about Ollie, whose place she is taking, Marine flies at her. The connection that starts with a cat fight becomes a grudging truce when they are obliged to share a room and even a bed. Soon they are pledging undying loyalty to each other. This may sound clichéd, and frankly it is, but there are enough twists and turns in the relationship to keep the plot moving.
We progress towards what may be described as a more subtle level of cliché, as Kate gradually loses her veneer of innocence, learns the ropes, and reveals a ruthless, treacherous streak. Marine, predictably, goes in the opposite direction becoming more reckless and self-destructive as the centre of gravity in the relationship inexorably shifts.
It could be argued that Kate is fighting for her very survival. She has only one chance and must do everything she can to succeed. Marine, although estranged from her parents, is a rich girl with better options and expectations. It’s the old story of the princess and the pauper, but Kate gradually surrenders the moral high ground to her privileged friend and rival.
Both lead actors put in solid performances but there’s a hollowness about these characters at odds with the self-discipline and dedication required to succeed at this level. The more we focus on their personal melodramas the more the school recedes into the background. Where the institution should be a dominant, ubiquitous presence that exerts a pressure on everything the students do, it is often no more than wallpaper against which Kate and Marine’s rivalry is played out.
Birds of Paradise is beautifully shot and sufficiently fast-moving to hold viewers’ attention. It was only when the film was over that I began to give full reign to my niggling criticisms. As with a night at the ballet or the opera it’s the reflections that arise after the curtain falls that make one more fully aware of the strengths and weaknesses of a production. It’s easy to muster a routine round of applause while knowing the performance you’ve just experienced was game but flawed.
Birds of Paradise
Written & directed by Sarah Adina Smith, after a novel by A.K.Small, ‘Bright Burning Stars’
Starring Diana Silvers, Kristine Frøseth, Jacqueline Bisset, Daniel Comargo, Eva Lomby, Solomon Golding, Stav Strashko, Nassim Lyes, Caroline Goodall, Alice Dardenne, Gaétan Vermeulen
USA, rated ?, 113 mins
Streaming on Amazon Prime video
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 2 October, 2021