December 16 – 22
Filmmaker Ulrich Seidl has confronted viewers for decades with disturbing and often frighteningly realistic portraits of those who are marginalized, abused, or plain excluded from mainstream Western, and more specifically Austrian, society. Much like his celebrated compatriot Michael Haneke, to whom he has been frequently compared, Seidl critically deconstructs the interpersonal relations and societal structures that condition the country’s citizens. Yet, while Haneke continues to cast his lens on a broad range of Western-European cultural and national contexts, often focusing on the bourgeoisie, Seidl repeatedly and rather keenly zooms in on the private and professional microcosms that make up Austrian society, in particular its undesired underclass. Even when engaging foreign geographical contexts, these spaces are meticulously traced back to Austria through different narrative and formal devices.
His best-known fictional work, Import Export (2007), looks at the bi-directional movement of goods, people, and services, including those of the sexual kind, between Austria and post-socialist Eastern Europe. What Seidl offers through this ruthless, yet at moments exceptionally touching narrative is a damning portrait of both the inequalities persisting within a supposedly unified Europe, and the profound existential blankness and emotional vacuity of those controlling and benefiting from this regional economic disparity, whether it is housewives exploiting domestic aids or perverted men indulging in the sexual humiliation of underage prostitutes.
With Paradise: Love, Paradise: Faith, and Paradise: Hope, Seidl reframes some of the key issues pervading his previous films, including those in Import Export, while considerably expanding and shifting the scope, as well as the tone of his reflections. Centrally, the trilogy explores questions of morality, and the inextricably entwined human expressions of love, sex, and sexuality, by simultaneously building on, yet significantly departing from, his habitual modes of inquiry and formal and thematic preoccupations.
Over the years, Seidl, whose filmography includes both fictional and non-fictional works, has perfected a personal style, which includes the frequent use of carefully constructed static tableaux through which people move in meticulously delineated, controlled movements, and semi-improvised interactions between actors—often a mix of professional and non-professional performers—filmed in lengthy takes. His formal rigor and rich improvisation straddles the borders of fiction and documentary cinema, and are the essential tools through which the director questions broad social, economic, and fundamentally existential issues.
The three parts of the Paradise trilogy were initially planned as chapters of a single feature film, but the director and his frequent collaborator and wife Veronika Franz, who also conducts extensive research on each of his projects, found it impossible to pare down the footage amassed during the lengthy production period. Despite producing three stand-alone films, the authors nevertheless suggest viewing them together and in sequence. Indeed, seeing them in this way, if not in one sitting, at least closely one after the other, provides an undeniably rich cinematic experience. Although there is no substantial narrative union between the films, they remain tangentially connected through familiar relations between the protagonists established in the first installment. Paradise: Love focuses on Teresa, a middle-aged single mother who embarks on a trip to Kenya and explores the unofficial sex industry of the African country, while leaving her prepubescent daughter, Melanie, in the care of her sister, Anna Maria, the protagonists of the Hope and Faith episodes respectively. While the relationships between them are not explored in detail, the characters briefly connect through elegantly placed moments of interaction, such as phone calls between daughter and mother, or a brief appearance of Anna Maria in the initial film, when Teresa drops Melanie off at her sister’s house.
Paradise: Love further explores the relationship between sex and power strongly present in Import Export, but does it in the distant, isolated location of a Kenyan beachside resort. The supposed paradisiacal tourist destination is depicted as a beautiful place with palm trees and sandy beaches, where Austrian visitors lounge lobotomized alongside the pool, or mindlessly engage in repetitive, ridiculous activities offered by the local entertainers working there. “Hakuna Matata!” has never sounded more oppressive.
Teresa is introduced as a simple, yet likable woman, charmingly naïve in her ideas of love, insecure about her bloated, sagging body, and almost childlike in her curiosity about the local young men encircling the resort and its sandy beaches, who as her friend explains, are ready to fulfill all of her sexual needs and desires. In reality, the local sex trade is established as an intricate micro-economy in which African men expertly feign sexual and emotional interest toward the foreign female visitors, invariably followed by pleas for money framed as unexpected expenses incurred by a close family member.
While initially, Teresa’s ideas of love and her hang-ups about herself as a sexually undesirable woman stand in the way of engaging in this ritual of ambiguous exploitation (who, we might ask, is the victim here?), she soon feels empowered by these relationships, willfully ignoring the financial implications at the core of these exchanges. Her progressively developing self-assuredness culminates in a recognizable Seidlian scene: a disturbing orgy captured in harsh detail which shows Teresa and her friends competing to arouse a young local, significantly, without success. While in this scene, Teresa explores and exploits the limits of her control, her sexual commands are subsequently rejected by a young waiter she previously ridiculed with her friend, leaving her with a sense of shame and disillusionment, sentiments of powerlessness ruthlessly framed within an economy of exploitation.
Anna Maria, Teresa’s sister (played by Seidl regular Maria Hofstätter), features as the central figure in the trilogy’s second installment, which places the “faith” of its title into the realm of religious adoration. Anna Maria is shown as a reserved and proper Catholic woman in her 50s, who spends her free time obsessively cleaning and organizing her house—motifs that in Seidl’s films often evoke a sanitized emotionless state—while devoting all other aspects of her life to the figure of Christ. She is seen singing religious songs and organizing a Bible study group, but also flagellating and punishing herself physically in various ways. Spirituality and bodily desire get fused in her quest to fundamentally connect with this figure of adoration.
Unexpectedly, her apparent isolated existence is disrupted when her husband shows up after a two-year absence, a wheelchair-bound Muslim man, whom she does her best to ignore. While continuing to fulfill her basic duties in the household, Anna Maria rejects his cries for human affection, which eventually turn into episodes of rage, culminating in a disturbing scene of attempted rape. Their inability to connect is initially drawn along religious lines, but we increasingly grow to understand that this relationship, and Anna Maria’s turn toward religion, is rooted in undefined suffering. While much of their past remains unexplored, it becomes clear through halted, awkward conversations, that deep traumatic events infused the earlier stages of their marriage, and it remains the viewer’s challenging task to untangle the questions of guilt and suffering so strongly defining the lives of these damaged people.
The claustrophobic environment of their immaculately clean house is opened up through episodic scenes of Anna Maria traveling to underprivileged neighborhoods of Vienna going door-to-door with a statue of the Virgin Mary and inviting people to pray with her. These scenes enrich the depiction of the central character and save her from becoming a religious freak stereotype, while allowing Seidl to display his mastery of improvisation. One such scene includes Anna Maria visiting the cluttered apartment of an aging bachelor, an eccentric speedo-clad figure with a paunchy stomach and a bent back. While the scene provides a brilliant moment of subtle comic relief, the oddball’s faltering delivery of the Lord’s Prayer, in which he mumblingly emphasizes its commands for forgiveness and absolution, presents a delicate and deeply humanist depiction of the moral questions at hand.
Paradise: Hope differs from the other two films in the trilogy, both in its subject matter, as well as the pervasive gentleness with which Seidl approaches its central characters. Teresa’s daughter Melanie, an unremarkable, slightly overweight 13-year-old, is sent to a diet camp while her mother is vacationing in Kenya. At the camp, she establishes friendships, gets drunk with her fellow roommates, and falls intensely in love with the camp’s resident doctor, a pensive, attractive man in his 50s, who does his best to not reciprocate her feelings. The formal style of Hope offers surprising moments of an almost painterly quality, for instance capturing the young girl enveloped in shimmering sunshine during a lakeside excursion. As for the previous segments of the trilogy, Edward Lachman and recurrent Seidl collaborator Wolfgang Thaler provide the rich cinematography of the film.
In numerous scenes, Seidl subverts our fears, expectations, and hopes as he explores this impossible relationship, our expectations at least in part generated by the habitual narrative developments we have come to expect from his films. In one scene, Melanie visits the doctor’s office, a way for her to get close to the object of her budding teenage desires. As she stands there facing him, the man removes his shirt without hesitation. Yet instead of a disturbing deflowering sequence, what follows is a playful role reversal, in which the doctor invites Melanie to gently examine his heartbeat with his stethoscope. While we see her suffer through the recognizable patterns of excitement, uncertainty, and inevitable rejection, it is through his distress that the grave moral implications of their unconsummated love affair emerges.
Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy thus confronts us with three essential moral questions, three diverging thematic contexts through which the often awkward and disjointed dynamics of human actions and interpersonal relationships are explored. While persistent in his depiction of periods of relentless in emotional, spiritual, or economic crises, which often reflect the shortcomings of his characters and the stratified social codes that define them, Seidl occasionally offers his viewers episodes of deeply moving empathy and true beauty. In these moments, Seidl suggests, there is hope after all.