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" A woman’s heart is an ocean of secrets "
— Gloria Stuart, Titanic

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Paradise: Hope is the third film in a trilogy by Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl. The others were Paradise: Love and Paradise: Faith.

The films are not naïve paeans to 1 Corinthians. They are not even respectful contemplations a la Kieslowski’s Decalogue. Instead they are provocative, transgressive stories about women and sex. The first was about sex tourism, the second about a missionary, fundamentalist Catholic.

Paradise: Hope is about a 13-year-old girl at a diet camp and her crush on the camp’s doctor.

Camp Crush

Not knowing how far Seidl will carry things makes it tense
Not knowing how far Seidl will carry things makes it tense

Meli (Melanie Lenz) gets a ride to camp from her aunt (Maria Hofstätter, the subject of Paradise: Faith) in her comically tiny car. Her aunt takes her because her mother is away in Kenya doing what we see in Paradise: Love.

I had almost forgotten how visually funny Seidl’s films could be. Perpendicular, planimetric framing of static wide shots heighten the absurdity of kids doing somersaults while their greasy gym teacher blows short, sharp bursts on a whistle.

Seidl cuts from these exercise vignettes, to the girls gossiping and giggling in their dormitory, to Meli visiting the doctor’s office for yet another checkup with the doctor (Joseph Lorenz).

There is more texture than story. What little plot there is involves Meli getting to know her roommates, and her crush getting more serious with the doctor. That the doctor plays along with Meli is creepy. To be honest, I didn’t know how far Seidl would let things go. Considering how surprising and shocking the other films were, the uncertainty made watching Paradise: Hope an exercise in tension.

Misanthrope, Provocateur, Humanist

In each of the three films, Seidl’s visual style highlights the absurdity of the situations, rather than the darker currents. But they are often uncomfortable to watch. They are not films you “enjoy,” even if they are much more interesting than more conventional cinema.

Having survived all three films, I’ve asked myself, “what’s wrong with Ulrich Seidl?”

His web site offers a few clues. Eleven words there flash across the screen starting with descriptors: “director, scriptwriter, producer.” Then the professional labels give way to “voyeur, misanthrope, cynic, social pornographer.” These words begin to explain his fascination with the lives of his three flawed female protagonists.

All three films include scenes that cross boundaries. The films are impolite intrusions into the parts of their characters’ lives they’d be least likely to share with friends and acquaintances. The films don’t follow the characters into shame or guilt. Seidl seems more interested in the transgressive behavior than the aftermath. Yet their tone isn’t necessarily exploitative. Behind the scenes of degradation or cruelty there are real human beings, deeply flawed, with desires not that far outside the norm.

Seidl’s web site goes on to embraces four character judgments: “blackguard, provocateur, pessimist,” but lastly, “humanist.”

If I were to write the book of Seidl’s Paradise trilogy it would read: And now these three abide: misanthrope, provocateur, humanist; but the greatest of these is humanist.