One of film culture’s most grim and existentialist voices, Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, is a committed documenter of the human species in its private decimation. He grabbed global eyes first in the 1990s with nonfiction features of extraordinary misery and weirdness, and his subsequent fiction films Dog Days (2001) and Import/Export (2007) were completely structured around modern poverty and self-abusing human commodification.
Seidl has a relentless, convincing vision worth reckoning with, and because it fearlessly focuses mostly on the travails of modern lower-income women subject to the desires of men, it walks the blurry line between feminist fury and exploitation. This provocative ambiguity backlights Seidl’s new project — an ambitious trilogy of feature films, all three released in the United States this year. Part one, Paradise: Love, was released in April; part two, Paradise: Faith, in August; and part three, Paradise: Hope, finds theaters this October.
Co-written with Seidl’s wife, Veronika Franz, the Paradise triptych openly references Dante’s Paradiso (precisely, the tests Dante endures in the Eighth Sphere in the third part of his Divine Comedy), but in the context of a triangle of luckless, desperate contemporary women. The Dante parallel shouldn’t be taken too literally — Seidl’s films are ultra-realistic, caustic ordeals of contemporary social failure, with only their titles to suggest a grim irony.
Paradise: Love is about the lack thereof, indexed through a wickedly satirical portrait of European tourism. Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) is a sweet, obese, 50-year-old divorcée whom we see disembarking on a solitary vacation. Landing in Kenya, Teresa is bussed to a beach resort where young Africans work in quasi-colonial uniforms, and where horny middle-aged white women come as sex tourists, adopting local “beach boys” as sex toys and escorts.
Bikinied and unembarrassed by her girth, Teresa wades in slowly, hunting for not just sex so much as intimacy and companionship. Her emotional descent, from boy to boy, one humiliating “relationship” to another, is salted by her financial victimization, as her funds are extorted by innocent-sounding lies and passed on to poor relatives. But even as he critiques the social dynamic, Seidl is never less than humane, spending serious time loitering with marginalized characters no other filmmaker deems worthy of time.
Paradise: Faith cuts closer to home, taking the liturgical ideas head-on, in the form of hardcore Christian tribulation. Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter), a homely mammography technician (and the sister of Love’s Teresa) also takes a week off and reveals herself to be a self-flagellating “traditionalist” mega-Catholic, stern and rigid and living neatly alone. Lugging a cement Madonna into Vienna’s tenements and evangelizing, door to door, she meets all manner of social ruin and impasse, but her real trial waits at home.
A paraplegic Arab man (Nabil Saleh) appears on her couch; we find they have a past as an estranged husband and wife, and Anna Maria’s hyper-sexualized Christ fever is her new life, intended to obscure the old. He begs to be treated as a husband (she prefers humping her crucifixes) and a catastrophic clash of faith traditions erupts.
Optimism is reserved for the trilogy’s finale, Paradise: Hope, which is suitably (and relatively) sunny in attitude. Melanie (Melanie Lenz), Teresa’s overweight tween daughter, does her summer vacation rite at a diet camp occupying an empty school in the Lower Austrian forests. Amid the dictatorial exercises and absurd rituals, the inexperienced (and fatherless) Melanie cares far less about losing weight than about nervously pioneering a sexual-romantic connection with the camp’s gray-haired ne’er-do-well of a doctor (Joseph Lorenz). It’s a pedophilic arc that in Seidl’s world could have led to humiliating disaster, but instead the film veers clear of doom, and even turns wistful.
Each of the films pulses with Seidl’s patient visual style — distanced, bitter-comic three-walled tableau shots, held uncomfortably long — making the scenarios’ tension between desire and reality almost unbearable. As a scalding film experience about modern womanhood and its discontents, it has no peer this year.