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This review is from: Paradise Trilogy: Love / Faith / Hope [DVD] (DVD)
I must confess to being a newcomer to the works of Seidl (I've owned Import/Export for some time but haven't watched it), but on the strength of this trilogy, I will be keeping a closer eye on him and his work. Here we have his ironically titled "Paradise" trilogy (ironic because these films are miserable, and the characters find neither closure nor paradise, although they do look for it), presented beautifully in a cardboard fold-out boxset with slipcase and booklet. For a director whose style is both formal and aesthetically pleasing, this set is very fitting. The m.o is three films about three women, all of whom are linked (a mother, her sister, and the mother's daughter in that order).
The films themselves are all very good, but some more so than others. The first in the trilogy, Paradise: Love, concerns a middle-aged, overweight woman named Teresa who goes on a holiday in Africa with carnal and romantic satisfaction primarily in mind. It's a grim little picture with a very depressing outlook. Teresa is a vile creation, self-centred, racist and thoughtless, quick to objectify the black men she surrounds herself with in the pursuit of "love" (or her blinkered approximation of it). It's undoubtedly a masterfully controlled film, and Margarete Tiesel is fearless in the things she does for the camera. Seidl is keen to hold the frame, and his shots have a quirky symmetry to them, perhaps to a fault (as do all the films in the trilogy). For all these good things, however, the film is a tad overlong, and suffers from repetition in the middle passage. It's my least favourite of the lot, but it's worth seeing for an austere examination of what happens when an amoral woman decides she wants to get her rocks off abroad. It's a few quick-cuts and a 90's soundtrack away from being a BBC3 documentary. I award it a high three stars.
Paradise: Faith was my favourite of the three, primarily because of my own interest in the nature of organised religion, and faith. It starts as it means to go on, with the shocking sight of the main character, Teresa's sister Anna Maria (Maria Hofstatter), apologising to the large crucified Jesus on her wall for being sinful and flagellating herself over and over (and over) again. It's strong stuff that doesn't let up for the rest of the two hours, but whereas the previous film had a tendency to ramble on, making the same points more times than necessary, this one has more of a focus. The kick-off for the brunt of the plot is the arrival of Anna's estranged Muslim husband Nabil, and the way the two play off each other. Anna also passes her days by travelling from house to house spreading the word of the lord; this is where the strongest scenes can be found, as we are allowed an outside perspective on Anna's faith. One scene in particular involves Anna going to the house of a couple who have both been previously married (one being divorced, the other a widower). Their conversation, then argument, provides one of the strongest comments on the nature of faith I've seen in a film, comparable with the confession from The Seventh Seal. She just wants them to atone for their sins, but in their eyes they have not sinned. She thinks that they should seek forgiveness from the Lord, but in their eyes there is no Lord at all (as the man says, "Where is this God?"). It's a beautiful five minutes that provides the core of the film. The plot with the husband is the other side of this film's coin, as the two argue and bicker and circle around each other before painfully, realistically colliding. It is implied that it was their marriage deteriorating that led to Anna's faith becoming more of an obsession, and indeed, as the film goes on and the painful truths come out, Anna's faith starts to crumble (yes, she masturbates with a crucifix). A fascinating film, anchored by a painful performance from Hofstatter. Five stars.
Paradise: Hope is the final one of the three, and it falls somewhere in the middle of the two in terms of quality; the repetition is gone (indicated by the shortest running time, 88 minutes), but there is less intrigue (for me personally) than in the second film. I also found it the hardest to watch. Melanie Lenz plays very well as Melanie, a 13 year old girl (Teresa's daugher) who is sent to a "Diatcamp" to lose weight. Once there, the film turns into a warped coming-of-age story in which the usual rituals and tribulations of youth (drinking, smoking, staying up late and sneaking out to clubs) are played against the very uncomfortable relationship between Melanie and the 40something doctor on the site. She becomes infatuated with him, and he develops an obsession with her. She is naive and believes that their relationship is genuine and can last, he is aware that what he feels is wrong, but pursues it anyway. The film does not shy away from any aspect of the pair's relationship, and I almost had to look away in a number of scenes due to their frank and uncompromising nature (how this film was the one to receive a 15 certificate astounds me- it shows us more than, say, Todd Solondz's Happiness). It's also unexpectedly sad at the end; after the cold and distantly impressive first two, a sudden burst of feeling was quite unexpected. Four stars.
As a trio, they form a complete whole, sharing the same styles, motifs, longueurs and ideas. Films made about women in this day and age are rare; films made this honestly about women are even rarer, and the fact that this was made by a man is close to a miracle. They aren't a happy watch by any means, but they'd lose their edge and point if they were sugarcoated. They are a bleak antithesis to the trite and artificial dramas found in Hollywood, and they offer no easy ways out of the all-too-real situations Seidl is offering us. It's a brave and ultimately impressive whole that I highly recommend.