Birds of Paradise review: another dance film disappoints | Arts

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Ballet can be an elusive art form for those unfamiliar with it, largely due to its inaccessibility. Unfortunately, the opaque nature of the field often means that attempts to shed light on its inner workings fail, and these misrepresentations end up subverting the true nature of traditional art. Nowhere is this more apparent than in dance films. The latest addition is Amazon Studios’ “Birds of Paradise”, directed by Sarah Adina Smith and based on the novel “Bright Burning Stars” by AK Smalls. The film is an ambitious and fantastic psychological thriller which does not hesitate to emulate its predecessor “Black Swan”. Smith takes viewers into a dark web of friendship, sex, and betrayal, but disappoints in his portrayal of the ballet world itself.

“Birds of Paradise” revolves around two female protagonists: Kate Sanders (Diana Silvers) and Marine Durand (Kristine Froseth). Kate is an American newcomer to the highly competitive and foreign environment of the Paris Opera Ballet School after only four years of training. Meanwhile, Marine is the school’s gifted prima ballerina, as well as the daughter of the American Ambassador to France, and has a troubled past and a connection to dance. The women share a turbulent and eerie relationship, which begins with a cat fight (literally) but quickly evolves into an intense bond at the brotherhood level.

Sex underlies the entire movie. It’s an unsurprising choice, and one that tilts into problematic territory – not in the presence of sex itself, but the innuendo that dance is inherently sexual. At the start of the story, Kate turns to the star student for help with her partnering skills. He makes her do a totally irrelevant exercise, manipulating her body and telling her that the “perfect ballerina” is the one who practices “total submission” before having sex with her.

What is concerning beyond questionable consent is the sense of inevitability and the portrayal of actual dance work as sexual. Camera work even adds to this sense, as it sneaks up on their limbs and often focuses on the man’s hands supporting the ballerina at her waist, sexualizing a work that is not meant to be viewed as such. . In light of how ballet and dance in general have a history of hypersexualization – which is particularly damaging to young students – the way “Birds of Paradise” deals with sexuality seems muffled and detrimental to discourse on the subject. topic.

The writing is often stilted and the plot twists in predictable ways, undermining the credibility of the characters and the story. The scathing reviews of the ballet mistress, or a moment of empathy between Kate and the only black woman in school, echo the truth Рbut are presented in such a clich̩ form and with such melodrama, that they feel inauthentic and hollow. Kate, who cannot afford her own pointe shoes and has only been dancing for a few years, has the potential to shed light on the inaccessibility and elitism of the ballet world, especially around Marine, who has all the privileges and connections of an aspiring ballerina could hope for. However, because the film is so focused on shock value and drama, the paranoia and pettiness takes center stage instead. The quieter moments that could generate genuine empathy, like scenes of Kate doing extra work to catch up, are relegated to a few fleeting cut-outs.

When describing the tumultuous and unpredictable waters of a young female friendship whose tensions are exacerbated by the added pressure of their artistic aspirations, “Birds of Paradise” is the clearest and most thoughtful. Kate and Marine cling desperately to each other: Kate needs a friend and a guide in this foreign place, while Marine searches for someone to fill the void left in her life by her brother twin, who recently committed suicide. Silvers and Froseth have a palpable chemistry here, and they brilliantly describe the heady relationship. But the two never quite get out of the eggshell bed, and it’s in this intricate dance of trust, competition, and self-seeking that the film finds an evocative story.

The actual dance in the film is of a refreshingly high standard, featuring real professional dancers such as Daniel Camargo (Royal Ballet), Solomon Golding (formerly Royal) or Eva Lomby. While Silvers and Forseth lack the precise technical skills of professional dancers, they both manage with impressive skill, showing off a clear base and beautiful long lines. Forseth in particular shows remarkable quality of movement and artistry in his contemporary solo at the end of the film.

As a film about the intricacies of adolescent female friendship, “Birds of Paradise” is engaging, though a little implausibly dramatic at times. As a dance film, however, it disappoints. Once again, the depiction of the ballet world clearly becomes secondary to the main themes of betrayal and drama, with the natural intensity of the art form only used as a prop for a more gripping plot. In the case of “Birds of Paradise”, this abuse is incredibly frustrating at a time when progress is being made to facilitate meaningful and fruitful dialogue about issues within the industry. Ballet films can bring the traditional art form exclusive and inaccessible to a wider audience, but they need to be more careful not to perpetuate harmful ideas of power, gender and politics in the industry.

– Editor-in-chief Sara Komatsu can be contacted at [email protected]

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