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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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In characteristically straight-faced fashion, the low key Seidl explained that he indeed wanted audiences to experience the project as a package. At the festival, he unveiled not only "Paradise: Hope" but a gallery exhibit dedicated to photographs from all three movies along with an accompanying book. "When people have the opportunity to see the films together, the result is a more complex, rewarding and deeper experience," he said through a translator. "There are echoes between the episodes on themes of love, longing and body image."

Seidl discusses his work with an air of confidence and restraint not unlike his movies, but it's his moral code that truly stands out. All three "Paradise" entries contain an element of social critique, but "Hope" notably contains fewer attempts to make the audience uncomfortable -- in the simplest sense, it's only one of the three movies that never shows its characters in the nude.

"I knew from the very beginning that there wouldn't be explicit scenes of sexuality between the doctor and Melody," Seidl said. "I didn't want to show that, but I wanted to raise the potential of such scenes." Seidl may have a reputation for pushing boundaries, but he also establishes them for himself. "When I'm dealing with underage children, I feel a sense of responsibility to deal with them more cautiously than I do with adults."

Seidl discusses his work with an air of confidence and restraint not unlike his movies.

Ultimately Melanie's attraction to an older man is the movie's red herring. He developed "Hope," he said, to tackle youth obesity in much the same manner that "Love" assailed the sex industry and "Faith" went after religion. Seidl brought a documentarian's eye to each segment of the trilogy; for "Hope," he claims to have visited every diet camp in Austria. "The fact is that -- and this is a statistic -- more children today are overweight than ever before," he said. "The family background has a lot to do with it. The social background the children grew up in does as well. It asks the question, 'Why is this happening?'"

Collectively, the movies provide an answer. Physical urges are exploited for profit in "Love," whereas in "Faith" it's treated as anathema. "Children are very aware of their bodies," Seidl explained. "These children see themselves as failures because they know they don't correspond to socially imposed notions of beauty. The film presents a failure of society. It's almost impossible for overweight teenagers to overcome it as adults."  

Seidl added that his series of missives aren't restricted to his native country. "It's important that this isn't seen specifically as an Austrian question," he said. "Even though we were shooting with Austrian actors in our language, it applies to society as a whole. The film could just as easily take place in Germany, France or Norway."

His ambitions continue to expand. Since completing "Hope," he has already finished shooting a documentary called "In the Basement" about "the relationship to Austrian men to their basements." But he's got an even more formidable project just around the corner, a historical film he described as "much bigger than the 'Paradise' trilogy…it's something I've been thinking about for 25 years."

In the meantime, the rest of the world has three new Seidl movies en route to theaters. (Strand Releasing will open the "Paradise" movies in succession -- the first entry opens Friday, with two more scheduled for release in the coming weeks.) Seidl was ambivalent about whether they impact his current rep as a rebel filmmaker. When I told him that "Hope" is undoubtedly his most accessible work, he finally broke his grave demeanor and laughed. "On the one hand, some audiences will say, 'Too bad this film isn't provocative,'" he said. "On the other hand, some of them will fear the provocation. The films are made now. It's up to them."
 

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







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