Paradise: Hope

The last movie in Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, Paradise: Hope, has, at its centre, the relationship of a teenage girl with a doctor. She is about 17, he must be at the far end of forty. The girl is Melanie, and she is the daughter of Teresa from the first movie. Melanie is curious about her effect on boys; her bunkmate’s tales about blowjobs and shaved vaginas not only educate her, but seem to make her eager to go out and explore on her own.

Melanie is pretty. She is also overweight. The movie takes place at a camp for overweight teenagers. One of the saddest scenes I’ve seen lately is the one where the teenagers stand in line in the courtyard and have to sing: “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your fat.”

Melanie is aware of the camp’s doctor. He is a bit of a joker, not bad-looking, but far too chummy with Melanie. She fakes mysterious stomach aches in order to see him. There might also be moments where he engineers their encounters in the camp’s changing rooms. That guy is trouble of the creepy kind.

The camp is full of teenagers trapped in a loveless environment, dumped there by their parents. They sneak food, fags and booze into the camp. They get caught, and Melanie is mortified because the doctor tells her off like an unruly child.

There is an away day at a lakeshore. Melanie wanders off into the nearby woods, maybe hoping for the doctor to follow her. He does so. It’s a very uncomfortable scene, because Melanie is looking after company, a kind word, a connection, some appreciation. The doctor might hope for more. He follows her to a clearing, and she approaches him. Then she hugs him, which seems to come as a surprise to him. After some hesitation, he hugs her back. That must be enough. This time.

Later, he sneaks into her room and goes through her things. He lies in her bed, then leaves before she comes back. The same evening, she waits by his car until he appears. He tells her off – not because they are off limits to each other, but because he could be seen talking to her.

Melanie and her bunkmate escape to a local bar where they get picked up by two horny teenage boys. They slip something in her drink, and her friend takes off because Melanie gets all the attention. They feel her up while she tries to dance under the effect of the drug. Then she collapses and is saved by the barkeeper. This time.

The barkeeper calls the doctor to pick up the unconscious girl; he must have seen this kind of thing before. The doctor appears, and one danger of abuse is replaced by another. He drives into the woods and stays there with an unconscious Melanie until morning. He lays her down gently in a mossy clearing, lies down beside her and starts sniffing her. This time.

He brings her back to the camp and tells her that they cannot have any more contact. High time for that, but get this: He severs ties not because she is infatuated with him, but because he is afraid that he cannot handle her infatuation much longer.

I struggled a bit with the movie, because there seemed to be little hope: Does Melanie really still hope for good friends and acceptable partners? Maybe, but that would be against the odds. On the other hand, it must be an excellent kind of hope, with such a long shot.

One thing that still bugs me: In all three films, the women are somehow exploited by men, and they barely recover. Maybe it’s one of the formal points Seidl makes; maybe it’s also his way of finding out how his characters fare under pressure. But the coincidence haunts me, and it is only partly solved by the fact that he made all three protagonists women. There seemed to be so little joy in any of their lives. Teresa is still in Kenia at the end of the movie. Anna is whipping her savior, and Melanie is still at fat camp, having no clue how close she was to being raped. Neither of the three women has escaped their trap, but did anyone really think they would?

Or maybe Melanie is hard-wired like her mother and her aunt. They do what they must, and joy or relief doesn’t really have anything to do with it. Like Teresa, who will go on looking for love in dubious places. Maybe the paradise of the title is the one time where you really find what you are looking for. Like Anna, who might come to some kind of truce with her religion, which demands everything of her, whether she gives gladly or no. For Melanie, hope is the one red line going through her life. At least that. Living without it must be hell. There is no sure way to reach paradise, and most of us won’t reach it, but the movies seem to suggest that we must at least try, or we will fail miserably. It could be possible that some kind of truce is the best we get. Maybe hell isn’t other people; maybe hell is you, but it’s not your fault. It’s just the way you are.

Paradise: Faith

I’ve been in love a few times, and I imagine I’ve been loved a few times as well. Sometimes the feeling wasn’t mutual. That’s the way it is sometimes. With belief, it’s a different story: I am not really a religious person. The things I believe don’t believe back in me. This is a suspicion, not a complaint: Belief seems to be such a one-sided affair.

This explains already why I had more difficulty in understanding Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith, the middle film of his Paradise trilogy. There are other problems with this installment, but we’ll come to that eventually.

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This film’s protagonist is Anna, Teresa’s sister. She is devoutly Catholic, and it is her and her bible group’s sworn objective to make Austria wholly Catholic again. Anna herself is convinced that the world is full of sex-obsessed people, and she asks that they be forgiven by whipping her own naked upper body with a whip while kneeling in front of her crucifix in a cheerless room in her house. Then she thanks her savior for the chastisement. Sometimes she goes as far as to tie a belt with iron thorns around her waist and make rounds through her flat on her knees while praying, and the kitchen timer telling her when to stop. She works as a radiologist’s assistant, but during her holiday, she goes from door to door in run-down apartment complexes and tries to convert people. She doesn’t stop at anything – there is a family of foreigners, non-Christians, of which only the eldest daughter speaks German. The whole family kneels in front of the Mother Mary statue. Anna can be very convincing.

One evening she comes home, and a Muslim is sitting on her living-room sofa. This is Nabil. They seem to know each other. It will later transpire that this is Anna’s husband. To Anna’s mind, this not at all a contradiction to her Catholic zeal – it is simply a test of her faith. She is happy to be married to her pet project, and she thinks it’s an excellent thing that two years ago, her husband had an accident and is now in a wheelchair – if only Nabil could see that true faith has entered her life that way.

Nabil, of course, is less delighted about his situation. He can no longer have sex with her, which is what Anna considers the right path: no sex, but a test of faith instead. Nabil thinks that a wife must serve her husband in all walks of life, and Anna agrees – except that Nabil asks for intimacy and a little more of her time. He is her project and is not supposed to develop human needs, and particularly not such disgusting ones like sex. Nabil’s every attempt is thwarted by Anna; although she can brush him off easily, she must bear his presence because her faith tells her to. Turn the other cheek. She politely refuses him at first, but when he insists, they trade blows. He wants sex he probably cannot have, she has a country to convert. This relationship will end badly.

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One night, again on her way home from trying to convert people, Anna’s greatest conviction seems to become real in her own neighbourhood. She walks past a public park and sees a dozen people involved in a gangbang. She knows she must interfere, but she cannot, and while not really consciously aroused, she must become aware of her own suppressed sexuality. Nabil asking her to sleep in the same bed and those gangbangers entail the same horror to Anna: the world is really only after one thing. It is here that Seidl’s strictly geometrical, static camera lets go and adopts Anna’s point of view. There is a possibility that Anna might only imagine the orgy. There is very subtle irony here: Anna is the one person who cannot tell whether she imagines the whole thing or not because for her, this was bound to happen. She staggers back home, utterly shocked, but proven right.

Anna’s zeal remained impenetrable to me. This movie must play like a horror flick to some Catholic audiences. To me, a former Protestant, Anna is very far from my own walk of life. That’s not to say that I don’t know about being passionate about something, way more passionate than is good for me. I understand obsession. I utterly empathize with trying to fulfill that passion, but I also empathize with the despair of not getting any rest about being passionate all of the time. I seem to be able to stop before I damage myself or others; for Anna, it’s all or nothing. She has subscribed to her faith, and if that involves more than she can take, so be it. It’s God’s will. She is so far out there that I can hardly see her. The actress playing her, Maria Hofstätter, disappears completely in her role. She is Austrian, friendly, with a quick smile. There is nothing in Anna of her.

Back at home, there is undeclared war. Nabil takes down her crucifixes, asks to watch TV, listens to Islamic prayer tapes and even puts a framed photograph of their wedding on her nightstand. He insults her faith and asks her, not to convert to Islam, but simply to find a better religion. He has a point, of course, although if you look past the object of her obsession, religion is not Anna’s problem. She enters a similar situation as her sister Teresa: She might still love Jesus, but there are moments when she despises her faith, but she cannot not believe. She is hard-wired that way, and there is no escape. The movie ends with Anna not whipping herself for a change, but whipping the crucifix on the wall.

Paradise: Love

Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy takes three basic needs – the need to love, the need to believe in some higher power, and the need for company -, and then shows how we fail most of the time. That doesn’t make Seidl a pessimist – maybe he is just very curious to the point of intrusion. I am not so sure why he chose two women and a girl as his main characters, and I am not sure what the paradise of the title means, but these are three movies that ask the right questions and wisely avoid giving any clear answers.

This trilogy may not be easy to watch. Seidl’s gaze doesn’t flinch, his camera rarely moves or zooms. There is a rigid geometry to his frames: many shots feature some sort of symmetry or at least horizontal or vertical lines of reference – the horizon, train tracks, the roof of a house, a window. His characters are often shown to inhabit the centre of the screen, within clear sight of the audience.

This clarity and order is at odds with some emotional or moral dilemma of one of its protagonists. Sometimes it looks like the edge of the screen is some sort of protection, but more often than not, these three women, and other characters, desperately try to break out of it. The two first main characters are played by renowned Austrian actresses; everybody else seems like they were picked up in the street and put on set. Some of them are.

Paradise: Love

The three main characters are introduced at the beginning of Paradise: Love. Teresa and Anna are sisters, while Melanie is Teresa’s teenage daughter. Teresa takes care of a group of people with special needs; there is, for the whole trilogy, a fitting first scene with bumper cars, not moving at first, then jolting to life and trying to find their route without any clear destination. Everyone has special needs – not because everyone thinks they’re special, but because we are all individuals, looking for something.

Teresa goes to spend her holiday in Kenia. She is egged on by a group of friends to get herself a toy-boy, who will make love to her for money. Both parties are in on the deal. You pretend to like me, and I will pay you and pretend to like you, too. This offer is subject to mood and need and can be cancelled anytime without prior notice. Seidl uses a chilling shot to establish that situation: there is a line along the beach along which men in uniform are patrolling. On the land side, there are rows of deckchairs, where the female tourists lie. On the other side stand the local vendors. They are not allowed to cross the line, and none of them do. The watchmen must exercise a very strict rule over that line, although we never see them at it.

Teresa is shy at first, almost reluctant, and an initial encounter makes her feel used, and she dumps the guy before he gets into bed with her. There are the salesmen on the beach with their beads and keyrings and souvenirs who are crowding her, and when her refusal to listen to them doesn’t work, there is Munga, unmistakable with his dreadlocks, who sends those overeager guys away. She suspects that this is his spiel. He does not ask her for anything, but is happy to watch over her while she wades in the water, and later show her his village, his flat, his bag of weed and his bed. They have sex. Teresa falls for him because Munga treats her as a human being. He seems inexperienced when it comes to touching a woman, and she teaches him how to. There is a sort of grim comedy to those scenes. A guy that inexperienced, he must be… different.

Let me digress here for a moment. There is a fair amount of nudity in this movie. Teresa is overweight, but she is also attractive. In some scenes, when she is on her way to Munga, she glows with the anticipation of meeting him. Other movies rely on younger and slimmer actresses to get naked. My point is this: most women’s bodies don’t look like models’, and most men are not muscle-bound athletes. Teresa looks… normal. Despite Seidl’s visual compositions, there is a realism to his environment that asks for normal people. If the physical appearance of some of his characters is a problem for you – well, what do you and the people around you look like?

To Teresa’s mind, Munga and her embark on a relationship. He introduces Teresa to his sister, who has a baby in her arms. Munga mentions another child who is in hospital and needs an urgent procedure, but Munga and his family don’t have the money. Teresa is happy to help out, and she gives him some cash. They visit a school, and Munga again asks her for money for school funds. When Teresa hands over only a small amount, the teacher gets cross and sends her away. Munga tells her off later, too, and it’s finally clear that this was his spiel. Well, she should have known that all along, but seemed to forget for a moment. He is just more patient than the vendors on the beach, and slightly cleverer as well.

Well, what did Teresa expect? Sometimes, we convince ourselves that we have found the real thing – fame, money, love – that we walk towards the snakepit with eyes and arms wide open. We need to love, and to be loved – it’s one of the most powerful drives in us humans. We can’t not love. And the promise of that makes us far too trustworthy. Some people are hard-wired that way.

The same goes for Munga. I don’t think he is indifferent to Teresa, but when you can get money out of the woman who comes and makes love to you, why not? She must have loads of it. And he must be grateful to have learnt how to touch a woman. Here’s a cruel thought: Maybe his inexperience is part of his act. Maybe his ‘sister’ is his wife, and the kid is his. And the kid in the hospital doesn’t exist. Who knows? Munga is gone, and Teresa has no clue where to put her love.

Of course Teresa is deeply hurt and disillusioned, but she meets another guy. She can’t not try. There must be some truth in her friend’s smirk when she talks about her black boyfriend. Of course Teresa knew that she wouldn’t find lasting love in Kenia, and that bitter disappointment, in herself as well as in Munga, together with her feelings of revenge, lead to the scene with the male stripper for her birthday and the sad hopeless scene where she tries to seduce the barkeeper. This was never about seduction, but about business. Teresa returns home hurt, disillusioned and with some new, shiny prejudices. She is sadder than before her holiday, and her sadness is deepened by her knowledge that she didn’t have a real choice.