You can tell an Ulrich Seidl film by its strict form and seemingly distorted improv. It’s like a cage with a mathematically precise iron gate that herds human animals into striking configurations. The previous two sentences are high-pitched stuff that critics have written about Seidl’s work since his early breakthroughs “Models” (1999) and “Dog Days” (2001), so I thought I’d finish. .
“Paradise: Hope” is the final film in Seidl’s “Paradise” trilogy, following the beautiful and thoughtful “Love” and the calm storm “Faith”. The subject of “Hope” is Melanie ( Melanie Lenz ), the 13 year old daughter of the protagonist of the first film and the niece of the subject of the second film. All three episodes are about an Austrian woman (in this case a rookie woman), seeking fulfillment in a partner. Melanie’s mother seeks affection and appreciation from Kenyan boy toys. His aunt looked for him in the arms of Jesus. And now Melanie is looking for an outlet for her soaring sexual curiosity, finding an even more inappropriate candidate than a poor African or a Christ statue: The director of her weight loss camp,
Which reminds me to mention another high-profile thing you’ll hear from critics about Seidl: He’s a provocateur who trades in shocking, embarrassing, and emotionally exhausting situations. Her characters chase happiness right into the traps set by cruel and duplicitous exploiters, or, worse, by disadvantages such as aging, obesity, disability, and poverty. These films are described as grueling endurance tests, “not for the squeamish.”
We live in a culture that can stare unblinkingly at gruesome murders, Ultimate Fighter concussions, all manner of petty and bloody atrocities, as long as they are packaged as entertainment or certified as high art. What seems to inspire all of the squeezing advice about Seidl’s relatively nonviolent films is the way their protagonists resist our mercy while the cameras refuse to turn their backs on the everyday reality we’ve been conditioned to find depressing or unpleasant. In “Love,” Melanie’s middle-aged mother, Teresa, walks to a Kenyan beach in a swimsuit, inviting horror from viewers who can’t imagine anyone seeing her as beautiful or desirable. In “Faith”, Melanie’s aunt, Anna Maria, looks like a virgin Jesus freak, clinging to her faith in exchange for a life.
What the responses missed was how often Seidl showed the beautiful Teresa beaming, in her anticipation and curiosity that was flushed at first; his dizzy feeling when he finally printed what he believed to be a stranger looking into his heart. Similarly, we learn that Anna Maria was not a holy fool, but a woman with a past filled with physical pleasures and emotional disappointments, a past so turbulent that it pushed her further into her faith as a refuge. And both women proved capable of cruelty and ignorance as well as tenderness and insight. Seidl’s camera always backs off to let women’s surroundings and their orientation within them tell their story in a way that can inspire loving confession. (The cruelty and condescension that many critics attribute to Seidl seems more like a projection.)
“Hope” devotes the same strict attention to a fat girl in a fat camp. Melanie’s accelerated maturity takes place against the backdrop of tightly regulated camp life, a series of exercises, assignments, excursions, and physical exams that Seidl frames as the way people photograph factory assembly lines. glam snow bunny. Seidl is fascinated by the little ways people decorate their lives to reflect the bright future they strive for in the rigid system that promises that future and continues to deny it. In “Hope,” Melanie and her chubby friends perform the training best suited for the stoic Marines, arrayed in the orderly composition of Seidl like very clumsy and listless children. The white and beige walls in this place seem as lackluster as the staff. Yet these high schoolers find a way to sneak in booze and music for a classic spin-the-bottle party. They quietly, defiantly live in a place of death.
When Melanie falls under the charm of a silver-haired pedophile who is tall and slender like a Marine (Joseph Lorenz), the film is on a rocky path to a conclusion that fulfills the film’s title and completes the “Paradise” series quite beautifully. —if you’re not afraid to look.