“Birds of Paradise” is rather disappointing in two main aspects. On one side, it seems to be a pulpy melodrama about a cutthroat artistic competition peppered with some sexual tension, but I must tell you that it is much tamer compared to, yes, Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” (2010). On the other side, it looks like trying to present the realistic depiction of the strain and pressure from competing for the top, but the result is not so interesting or enlightening compared to Robert Altman’s “The Company” (2003), which can be regarded as an antidote to “Black Swan” if you feel so drained after watching it.
At first, the story is unfolded mainly via the viewpoint of Kate Sanders (Diana Silvers), a young American ballet dancer who recently enrolls in a prestigious ballet academy in Paris. She is less experienced compared to other students because she was actually a basketball player before eventually deciding to become a ballet dancer, and Madame Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset), the strict and fastidious principal of the academy, emphasizes to her that whatever she achieved in US means nothing in Paris, but she is still determined to try her best for the chance to join the Opéra national de Paris.
However, what she and other students will soon have to go through is quite arduous and demanding to say the least. 15 male students and 15 female students are respectively evaluated every week, and only five students in each group will remain after 8 weeks as others will be let go one by one just for being at the bottom of the group. After this grueling period, the remaining 10 students must show their best in front of several judging members including Madame Brunelle, and then only one male student and one female student will be selected for the Opéra national de Paris.
Besides her relatively inexperienced status compared to other students, Kate has several other disadvantages. As a humble middle-class girl mainly depending on a scholarship fortunately provided to her, she cannot spend money easily on many necessary stuffs for her training including ballet shoes, and we are not so surprised when she attempts a bit of shoplifting when she visits a local shop for ballet dancers along with other students.
In addition, Kate has to get accustomed to how many of others around her often regard her with condescension, and she unfortunately happens to share the room with Marine Elise Durand (Kristine Frøseth), another American girl in the group who incidentally had the very unpleasant encounter with Kate on their first day in the academy. When Kate mentions Marine’s dead twin brother who also incidentally trained in the academy before his tragic death, Marine instantly responds with furious anger, and we accordingly get a brief but explosive moment of catfight between these two girls.
Nevertheless, it does not take much time for them to make amends to each other as they get to know and then befriend each other. When Kate is depressed to find herself at the bottom of the group in the first evaluation, Marine willingly helps her in more than one way, and Kate becomes someone to lean on for Marine, who has been quite unhappy since her twin brother’s death. Although they are certainly well aware that only one member of their group will get the spot in the Opéra national de Paris, they eventually make a private pact for assuring each other that they will support each other to the end.
Mainly thanks to Marine, Kate gradually begins to climb up and up in the list, while also accepting that she must be ready for doing whatever she can do for reaching to the top. Besides approaching closer to the No.1 male dancer in the group for having him as a partner to improve her skill, she also tries something many ballet dancers do behind their back just for improving herself more and more, but she does not tell anything to Marine because, as time goes by, it becomes quite apparent to her that Marine will be the one she must beat in the end.
In the meantime, the screenplay by director/writer Sarah Adina Smith, which based on A.K. Small’s novel “Bright Burning Stars”, shifts its focus a bit toward Marine, and we get to know how much she has been confused and conflicted. While her rich estranged parents do not provide her much support except money, the only comfort besides Kate comes from a young musician she happens to meet at a party, but their relationship is soon going nowhere as she is pushed to the extreme along with Kate and other remaining students as their eventual audition day is approaching.
Around that narrative, we are supposed to root for both of our two heroines, but the movie unfortunately does not provide the emotional ground for that, and we come to observe their competition without much care or attention. Although Kristine Frøseth and Diana Silvers do their best in addition to looking convincing during their dance scenes, their characters often feel underdeveloped, and that is the main reason why the finale does not work as well as intended. In case of several other main cast members in the film, they are usually required to do nothing more than filling their respective spots, and Caroline Goodall and Jacqueline Bisset are particularly wasted in their thankless supporting roles.
In conclusion, “Birds of Paradise” is not entirely without fun as occasionally dabbling with some pulpy moments including the ones involved with a lurid secret club, but it ultimately leaves empty impressions as hesitating to go over the top like “Black Swan” or delve deep into more realism and verisimilitude like “The Company”. I do not feel like wasting my time, but I would rather recommend you to watch either “Black Swan” or “The Company” instead.