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Sex, Desire and Social Activism: Ulrich Seidl's 'Paradise' Trilogy

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 25, 2013 at 9:35AM

The best movie trilogy to encapsulate epic struggles against evil impulses spanning generations isn't "Star Wars." Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, a divisive auteur on the world stage widely considered to produce sadomasochistic provocations, has delivered a grander three-part statement on the human condition.
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Ulrich Seidl at the Berlin International Film Festival.
Eric Kohn Ulrich Seidl at the Berlin International Film Festival.

Editor's note: A version of this article was originally published in February during the Berlin International Film Festival. Strand Releasing opens "Paradise: Love," first entry in the "Paradise" trilogy, on Friday.

The best movie trilogy to encapsulate epic struggles against evil impulses spanning generations isn't "Star Wars." Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, a divisive auteur on the world stage widely considered to produce sadomasochistic provocations, has delivered a grander three-part statement on the human condition.

Seidl's "Paradise" trilogy, which kicked off last year with the Cannes-competing "Paradise: Love" followed by "Paradise: Faith" at Venice that fall, comes to a satisfying conclusion in the surprisingly warm-hearted "Paradise: Hope." Viewed individually, the movies deliver a series of divergent investigations into the nature of desire and its emotional ramifications, but when seen as a whole Seidl's work goes to even greater lengths to represent the spectrum of ways those issues manifest in the fabric of modern society.

They're also handily organized by theme. In "Paradise: Love," the most unnerving and experimental of the three, an upper class middle-aged woman wanders Kenya with a group of likeminded friends exploring the country's sex tourism industry, sleeping with a series of hustling young men under the delusion that they actually care for her. From this bleak take on the industrialization of sex, Seidl remains in the family to explore his protagonist's sister in "Paradise: Faith," a more grounded character study in which the leading woman so furiously commits herself to the cross in the wake of a devastating divorce that she develops an attraction to Jesus (as well as resentment when she decides the romance has ended).

With the concluding "Paradise: Hope," which premiered in competition at the Berlin International Film Festival in February, Seidl focuses on the daughter of the woman from "Paradise: Love," portly teen Melanie (Melanie Lenz), as she enders the rigorous curriculum of a diet camp and falls in love with her much older doctor (Joseph Lorenz).

Those familiar with the earlier entries and Seidl's other films (including "Import/Export," which concluded with the degradation of a prostitute, and the subversive quasi-documentary "Jesus, You Know") may expect "Paradise: Hope" to bring the despair of the earlier movies to the fore; instead, he has offered something of a solution by unearthing a kernel of morality that saves his young protagonist from the lure of bad decisions. It's a curiously bittersweet work and certainly his most uplifting achievement -- although, this being Seidl, it constantly threatens to go the opposite direction.

"Paradise: Hope."
"Paradise: Hope."

Seidl has arranged the stories using the logical connection of family ties, but he's less interested in the relationship between the relatives (which take up precious little screen time) than the internal arguments they have with themselves. Narratively, the "Paradise" movies are linked by the director's lengthy static shots and quiet, patient staging of moments that straddle an ambiguity pitched between tragedy and deadpan humor, with their ideology dictating the shifting tone.

The first two movies establish a claustrophobic cycle of poor judgement, but in "Hope," Melanie retains an innocence salvaged from corruption. Seidl follows her as she discusses sexual curiosity with her affable bunkmates and shyly wonders if the doctor desires her. These exchanges lend a delicate feel, but on the few occasions when she makes a move, and the doctor's perception of her advances remain unspoken, "Paradise: Hope" generates a fascinating level of suspense as we wonder if situation will soon get twisted.

That's especially the case if you've seen the previous installments, although the movies retain enough distinction on their own to avoid any greater awareness of the "Paradise" universe. However, it has been widely reported that Seidl shot all three movies with the intention of stuffing them into a single feature; only during the editing process did he realize the need to break them apart. I tracked down Seidl in Berlin to ask him about if he felt they demanded to be seen as parts of a whole.

This article is related to: Features, Ulrich Seidl, Paradise: Love, Paradise: Hope, Paradise: Faith, Strand Releasing






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