Ulrich Seidl caps off his superb Paradise trilogy with a visit to a diet camp.
After tackling Love and Faith, Austrian misanthrope Ulrich Seidl completes his superb Paradise trilogy with a film set in a fat camp. The story centres around chubby teenster Melanie (Melanie Lenz). With her mother holidaying and her aunt off doing God’s work (over the course of the trilogy we learn that the three female protagonists are related), is sent to a diet camp in the Austrian countryside. Despite being put on a strict nutritional programme and a rigorous exercise regime designed to whip her into shape, Melanie is hardly committed to this course of enforced self-improvement.
Like Teresa and Anna Maria, Melanie craves simple pleasures, though rather than focusing on her struggle to suppress or control her impulses Seidl instead shows her experiencing various thrills and emotions for the first time. She smokes cigarettes with the girls she befriends at camp, sneaks out after light-outs for underage drinking sessions in the nearby village discotheque, gossips about boys and, most provocatively, falls in love with the resident physician, a man 40 years her senior.
Tonally the Paradise films are pitched somewhere between dark euphoria and reverse Schadenfreude. We’re never encouraged to sneer at either the characters’ appearances or circumstances. Nor are we urged to empathise with them. Instead, we’re asked simply to observe them, without judgment, in their respective habitats. Collectively then, these films seek to destigmatise physical imperfection while challenging our prejudices towards those whose desires may be contrary to our own. Yet by far Seidl’s most astute ploy is to never dwell on the inherent melancholy of the physical and mental humiliation each subject is forced to endure in their pursuit of gratification. Occasionally Seidl’s determination to thwart our preconceptions even results in moments of unexpected warmth.
In Seidl’s world everyone is equally exploited and objectified; no one is a victim in the traditional sense. Additionally each heroine’s superficial ugliness is masterfully juxtaposed by the understated elegance of the cinematography. A combination of oil painting composition, static camerawork and symmetrical framing gives some of the films’ more demanding scenes — a protracted interracial orgy, ritual self-flagellation, a physical examination loaded with paedophilic overtones — an inescapable, transfixing quality. It’s this level of craftsmanship that makes this pitch-black tripartite satire such essential viewing.
After Love and Faith, expectation for Hope is high.
Seidl saves the best for last. Wonderfully acerbic, consistently surprising, achingly bittersweet.
With this sublime trilogy under his belt, Seidl must surely be considered one of Austrian cinema’s great auteurs.