“Birds of Paradise” is a dance film that begins with a jete and rises into an arabesque before collapsing in a heap, a parade of ballet drama cliches that winds up stuck at the barre.
The set up — ballerinas competing for “the prize,” a contract with the prestigious Paris Opera Ballet — may be conventional in the extreme. Poor plucky American girl is gambling everything on her grab at the big brass ring, in ballet battle with the spoiled rich girl.
But for much of the first act, writer-director Sarah Adina Smith, adapting a novel by A.K. Small, keeps us guessing about what she’ll do with this tinder box of tropes. Will things turn murderous, homoerotic, or something even more daring?
Our “heroine” Kate (Diana Silvers) could be capable of anything in her pursuit of glory. Her roommate and antagonist Marine (Kristine Froseth) is disturbed and starts a serious slapfight with the girl the others disdain as “Virginia,” because that’s where she’s from, not bothering to learn the “gawky” one is named Kate.
Things could go “Black Swan” in a hurry, or so one might hope.
There’s a rapprochement that includes a hallucinatory trip to the exotic/erotic dance club “Jungle,” where your cover charge alone won’t get you in. You’ve got to eat a psychedelics-laced worm as well.
There are sexual complications aplenty in this erotically-charged atmosphere. With a transgender stage manager and lithe, thin and gorgeous dancers of every gender preference in the corps, the possibilities make one dizzy with anticipation.
“Hetero dancers are such sluts!”
And the head of the corps, the one who drills them and will help decide their fate, is Madame Brunelle, the one they call “Le diable (the devil), played with cold authority Jacqueline Bisset. She barks orders in French, which she barks in French, which “Virginia” doesn’t speak.
“Show me you have what it takes to win the prize,” she purrs to tall, athletic (she quit basketball to take up ballet) Kate, testing her least-likely winner with a cruel stunt.
Alas, Smith (“Buster’s Mal Heart”) tosses the wheat up in the air, and only takes care of the chaff. The most interesting directions she teases are abandoned for the merely conventional, time and again.
The dance sequences, what few there are, have more daring to them than the plot of the picture. The back-stabbing and bonding and breaking down are all so tame that you wonder why they bothered.
It’s all pretty enough, with a couple of striking settings, one of them the lovely belle epoch academy where the gamines give their all.
Silvers gives away a little ruthlessness behind her doe eyes, and Froseth manages to throw a little vulnerability into her aloof entitlement. They do what they can, but if there were sharp edges to Small’s novel, Smith rubs them right off.
Le Diable’s catty remarks about “clumsy” and “weight you gained over Christmas” dancers are cruel, but we’ve seen crueler. Drama runs on conflict, and Smith seems hellbent on rendering everybody “nice,” or at least justifiable in their machinations and intrigues.
The usual “distractions” of male attention yields little, aside from top male dancer Felipe’s (Daniel Camargo) glorious instruction/seduction of “the new girl.”
“Nobody pays to see perfection,” he purrs, sizing up, with his hands, the woman he will have to life in their duets. “They pay to see romance…desire…dominance, bodies touching bodies.”
The most real moment of the entire enterprise comes when last year’s prima (Eva Lomby), who is Black, admits to vomiting to lose weight because of how she stands out, how she’s singled out for criticism because she has to compete “with all these skinny white girls.”
The rest? Rich girl “rebels,” poor girl “schemes,” other dancers are sabotaged, all for the chance to dance, and always in the most tried-and-true ways of every ballet picture that came before.
Rating R for drug use, sexual content, language and brief nudity
Cast: Diana Silvers, Kristine Froseth, Eva Lomby, Nassim Lyes, Daniel Camargo and Jacqueline Bisset
Credits: Scripted and directed by Sarah Adina Smith, based on a novel by A.K. Small. An Amazon Studios release.
Running time: 1:54