Thursday, January 16, 2014

Movie Review: Paradise: Hope

Paradise: Hope
Directed by: Ulrich Seidl.
Written by: Ulrich Seidl and Veronika Franz.
Starring: Melanie Lenz (Melanie), Verena Lehbauer (Verena), Joseph Lorenz (Arzt), Michael Thomas (Sporttrainer), Viviane Bartsch (Ernährungsberaterin).

With Paradise: Hope, Ulrich Seidl brings his ambitious, dark trilogy to a close. The first film was Paradise: Love, about a German sex tourist in Kenya, who mistakenly believed she was going to find love down there, instead of the emptiness she did. That film was profoundly troubling, and although I cannot say I “liked” the film (it may be impossible to “like” a Seidl film), it has stayed with me for months after seeing it. The second film was Paradise: Faith – a film that didn’t engage me in the same way, because the two narrative threads – the Holy War that erupts between the main character, a devout Catholic, and her estranged husband, a Muslim, didn’t have much to say about either religion, and I never quite bought the characters’ obsessive need to bond with Jesus – both spiritually and sexually. The film seemed to me to be more of a provocation for provocation’s sake – and I guess it worked, since a leading Catholic organization protested the film, even though it’s the kind of small foreign film few would have heard of, and even fewer seen if they hadn’t (audiences stayed away – but I doubt the protest had anything to do with it).

Like the other two films, Paradise: Hope is only loosely connected to the other two – the main characters in Love and Faith are sisters, the main character in Hope in the first woman’s daughter (and the movies seem to happen simultaneously – which is why Seidl initially envisioned this as one, large film). The character at the center of Hope is Melanie (played by Melanie Lenz) – an overweight, young teenager who has to endure a few weeks at what can only be called a “fat camp”. They exercise, are taught healthy eating habits, etc. Like the other two films, the film is a troubling depiction of sexuality – this time as Melanie falls for the middle aged doctor (Joseph Lorenz) – whose affection for her is creepy, and yet also kind of sweet. He knows they are crossing a line, and he fights against actually doing anything physical together – but the sexual attraction is there.

In terms of the trilogy, Paradise: Hope is probably (appropriately enough) the most hopeful of the three films – the most tender, and least depressing. Unlike the Kenyan “beach boys” in Paradise: Love and the returned husband in Paradise: Faith, the doctor genuinely has affection for Melanie – he may in fact even love her. Everyone in the previous films were using each other in various ways – here a real connection is made between the two of them. What makes it disturbing of course is that Melanie is 13 and the doctor is in his late 40s. If this sounds like the film is an apologia for pedophilia, it really isn’t – although as in the previous film, Seidl doesn’t judge his characters. He favors long, stationary shots where he simply observes his characters, and their actions. It’s up to the audience to judge them.

The scenes of Melanie and her co-campers are probably the most relaxed, and almost playful of anything in the trilogy. The share their hopes and dreams, they party, they do stupid stuff – but they really are just normal teenagers. Here, I think, is where the Hope comes in. The character in Paradise: Love probably has no real chance to find love – she’s looking in the wrong place, and ends up exploiting the men she is there to find love with – but is horrified that they exploit her back. In Paradise: Faith, the main character has a warped, deranged view of religion and God – has perverted it beyond all meaning. Those titles were meant, in some ways, ironically. I’m not sure about Paradise: Hope – perhaps Melanie can find happiness at some point. Her mother and aunt don’t have a chance, but she does.

The sum of the trilogy is greater than any individual part. This really was a wildly ambitious undertaking from Seidl, who debuted his three films at three different festivals over the course of a year. As individual films, they are good – Faith less so than Love or Hope – but as a whole they add up to a depressing portrait of modern society – with perhaps just a shimmer of hope for the future.

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