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BERLIN – Austria’s idiosyncratic poet of everyday grotesquerie, Ulrich Seidl, constantly thwarts expectations in Paradise: Hope. Nowhere is this truer than in the surprising tenderness he brings to the concluding part of his trilogy about the unfulfilled quests for happiness of three women from the same family during their separate summer vacations.
Perhaps it’s simply a question of empathy. While not all of us can fess up to direct experience of colonialist sex tourism or self-flagellating religious fanaticism — the subjects, respectively, of the Paradise trilogy’s previous installments, Love and Faith — we’ve all lived through some form of adolescent awkwardness and agonizing first love. That makes Melanie (Melanie Lenz), the chubby 13-year-old packed off to diet camp in this film, a figure in whom many of us will see some aspect of our younger selves reflected.
But admirers of Seidl’s provocative work should not be concerned that he has suddenly turned soft and squishy. The director retains his fascination with the beauty in ugliness and corporeal imperfection, along with his perverse determination to find sardonic comedy and pathos in confronting situations that normally might be dismissed as repugnant.
However, there’s a strange sweetness to Paradise: Hope that counters the acidity of the previous two films, to some degree prompting re-evaluation of them. And without pushing any obvious message beyond its unvarnished scrutiny of ordinary lives, the film is also a bracing antidote to all the manufactured triumphalism of weight-loss reality shows like The Biggest Loser. It’s pretty much a given that in Seidl’s world, nobody sheds an ounce.
With her mother off getting suntanned and shagged on the beach in Kenya, and her aunt (Maria Hoffstatter, appearing briefly) readying to take her crazy zealotry door to door, Melanie is delivered to possibly the world’s least luxurious fat farm. It’s nestled in a mountain forest, but Seidl’s regular cinematographers Wolfgang Thaler and Ed Lachman are less interested in the verdant woodlands than in the stark institutional building that houses the camp. With its drained palette of sterile whites and flat greens, yellows and browns, this provides a brilliant canvas for the zaftig teens in their vibrant, unflattering outfits. In terms of the understated humor packed into its visual compositions, this is one of Seidl’s more pleasurable films.
Like most of the campers, Melanie appears docilely indifferent about being there. There are no visible signs of self-motivation for weight loss, but it’s obvious that the parents who enrolled these kids feel their stigma. The protagonist quickly becomes friendly with the girls in her dorm, particularly Verena (Verena Lehbauer), who freely shares accounts of her extensive sexual experience, awakening virginal Melanie’s curiosity.
In concrete narrative terms, relatively little happens in Seidl and co-writer Veronika Franz’s spare, mostly improvised screenplay. The kids sit through nutrition talks from the dietician (Vivian Bartsch) or endure the boot camp-style athletic training of the fitness coach (Michael Thomas), who preaches the virtues of discipline. While some stick to the program, more often they break the rules, staging nighttime kitchen raids or sneaking beer and snacks into the dorm. There’s a gently amusing sense here of eavesdropping on real teens having real conversations — banal yet casually illuminating.
In one scene, Melanie and Verena squeeze themselves into tight, trashy outfits, guzzle a bunch of mini liquor bottles and sneak out to go dancing. A local lad is quite taken with Melanie, carnivorously expressing his appetite to his drunken buddy. But as is almost invariably the case in this film, when she passes out drunk, an interlude that threatens to turn nasty takes a less expected curve.
The dramatic momentum comes from Melanie’s spiraling infatuation with the camp doctor (Joseph Lorenz), an affable, handsome man some 40 years her senior. Faking stomach cramps every day in order to visit his office, she begins a pattern of reciprocal flirtation. While he attempts to maintain some distance, her affections intensify into an all-out seduction campaign waged with zero consideration of the potential consequences.
Their rapport becomes a funny-sad Lolita scenario. But it’s a mark of the director’s audacity, as well as the honesty of Lenz and Lorenz in the central roles, that we never are encouraged to judge either of them. Even though the medic clearly is wrestling with his attraction to Melanie — and comes close to succumbing — his desire and guilt are treated as simple fact, not part of a sinister condition. That by no means suggests Seidl’s film is endorsing the taboo relationship as in any way appropriate. But the director regards the quasi-romance with objective detachment and an unapologetic refusal to moralize. Moments in the doctor’s will-he-or-won’t-he struggle are even chronicled with a lyrical gaze that makes them oddly affecting.
The intimate center of the film, however, is Melanie, played with disarming candor and not a single false note by Lenz. She’s a likable everygirl, hungry and excited to acquire real experience yet still touchingly timorous and uncertain how to go about it. (Across the board, performances from the nonprofessional teen cast are utterly natural and unselfconscious, even when stripped down for swim class with their ample flesh on display.)
While Hope is made with Seidl’s signature austere aesthetic — short, tableau-like scenes containing little if any camera movement, blunt edits, no nondiegetic music — there’s uncustomary warmth here and a sensitivity to the characters’ vulnerabilities that often is missing from this director’s work.
Like her mother, Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel), in Paradise: Love, and her aunt, Anna Maria (Hoffstatter), in Paradise: Faith, Melanie becomes consumed by the vision of something rapturous, only to see it shatter for reasons she is not equipped to comprehend. But unlike those other protagonists, Melanie never is rendered pathetic.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Ulrich Seidl Film, Tat Film, Parisienne de Production
Cast: Melanie Lenz, Joseph Lorenz, Michael Thomas, Vivian Bartsch, Verena Lehbauer, Johanna Schmid
Director-producer: Ulrich Seidl
}Screenwriters: Ulrich Seidl, Veronika Franz
Directors of photography: Wolfgang Thaler, Ed Lachman
Production designers: Renate Martin, Andreas Donhauser
Costume designer: Tanja Hausner
Editor: Christof Schertenleib
Sales: Coproduction Office
No rating, 91 minutes
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