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

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

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.

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.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.”

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.”

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