There’s only one way to evaluate a “Bird of Paradise,” and that is this: Is it better, worse, or as good as “Middle Stage”?
Each generation gets one key ballet film. The best non-documentary ballet film of all time is Robert Altman’s 2003 “The Company”, which was co-written by the film’s star, Neve Campbell. It is an intimate and subtle film with vivid inside details, based on her experiences as a ballet dancer. (The beautiful outdoor dance to “My Funny Valentine” in the pouring rain has the value of the film’s insight into ballet dance commitments.) 1977’s “The Turning Point” had a great performance by Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft as an old ballerina facing the road not being taken. That one features sensational dances by real-life ballet stars, including the stunning “Le Corsaire” by Mikhail Baryshnikov. But in 2000, “Middle Stage” printed on his fans less for dancing than for (sorry, fans) soap storylines about a rivalry between young dancers to see who would become the prima ballerina, with parental pressure problems, perfectionist matres de ballet, eating disorders, injuries, and the extremely rigid, even impossible standards of traditional dance companies versus experimentation with more contemporary music and steps. “Birds of Paradise” is like that, as it tells the story of two American teenage girls in France, competing with others to become the dancers who are chosen to join the company Opéra national de Paris.
Stories about teenagers are automatic emotional boosters; added ballet and the stakes were ramped up. There is no stage of life and no more high-pressure field, and classical ballet is based on an almost impossible standard of perfection, without legs or hair out of place (see “Black Swan”). It raises some drama about body image, for example. The rivalry between the two young women in this film is further strengthened. They are both equally committed to being the only dancer chosen to join the company but in every way they are different.
Diana Silvers, who made a strong impression in “Booksmart” and “Ma,” plays Kate Sanders, a scholarship student, cash-strapped, and the only child of a loving single father willing to do anything to support his dream. He was willing to do anything for her as well as for himself. While most of the girls had studied ballet since they could walk, she had only been dancing for five years. Prior to that, he was an athlete, who gave his dance performances a lot of power but perhaps not as much technique as others. He doesn’t speak French and he doesn’t smoke. He played by the rules like someone should always have only one fault for losing his place.
Her toughest competitor is Martine Durand (Kristine Froseth), the daughter of rich, powerful, and demanding parents, still deeply mourning the death of Ollie, her brother and dance partner. “Your father is the American Ambassador to France?” she asked. “No, my mother is the American ambassador to France.” Martine’s parents are furious for several reasons and one of them is that their daughter’s competition is there just because of the scholarship they made in Ollie’s name. He speaks French, he smokes, and he breaks rules like those of privilege use to avoid consequences.
Kate and Martine really started punching each other, and insulting each other. Then, during a nightclub dance, they begin to develop respect, close friendship, and more. It is not easy.
With all the inevitable drama and blood, eating disorders, and romantic complications, there’s not enough time for real ballet dancing. Director Sarah Adina Smith has a knack for striking images and creating eerie moods, bordering on gothic, but the plot is so dense that we barely had time to pay attention to Jacqueline Bisset as director of the demanding ballet group.
So, the answer is, there is a lot to like but not quite as good as “Middle Stage”. Or in dance terms, not quite en pointe.