Friday, March 29, 2013

Paradise: Hope (Paradies: Hoffnung)

Ulrich Seidl

 PARADISE:  HOPE (Paradies: Hoffnung)        B                     
Austria  Germany  France  (100 mi)  2013  d:  Ulrich Seidl  

The final chapter of the Paradise Trilogy has some of the same provocatively uncomfortable and miserablist themes that consistently run through Seidl’s works, but interestingly draws a sharp generational comparison, where instead of adults, the focus of attention here is instead on 13-year old Melanie (Melanie Lenz), a non-professional actress that appears briefly in Part One getting dropped off with the sister as her mother departs for a vacation trip to Kenya.  The mother and sister are extensively scrutinized by the director in the first two segments, painting a stigmatized portrait of societal unhappiness and loneliness, where adhering to Austria’s strict code of discipline and orderliness does not correspondingly lead to personal happiness.  This near mathematical precision is reflected in the meticulous film composition brilliantly masterminded by a partnership between Seidl and cinematographer Ed Lachman, yet the colorless and washed out look of the film is so drab and dreary that one would have thought this was filmed during the Ceauşescu era in Romania or back in the Soviet controlled days of East Germany.  And of course, there is a connection, as the old ways of conformity, following the rules, racial purity, and xenophobia are part of the perfect world order, where the isolationist Austrian society fails to teach or implement concepts like racial or religious tolerance, helping others less fortunate, or being open minded.  Accordingly, Austrian films, with a blend of fiction and documentary filmmakers like Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Michael Glawogger, Michael Haneke, Ruth Mader, Markus Schleinzer, Götz Spielmann, or Hubert Sauper are known for their icy cold tone of reserve and beautiful restrained direction with a controlled, austere style, often featuring long takes that linger in silence.  Seidl adds his own precision-like style into the mix, blending fiction into ultra realist stories that resemble documentaries.  

Packed into their tiny little box of a car that resembles stuffing overweight Dad Bob Parr into his car in THE INCREDIBLES (2004), Anna Maria, in her Radio Maria car, drives her overweight niece Melanie into the fresh alpine air to a diet camp for teens.  Amusingly, the first thing roommates do is exchange candy and condoms, with four girls in two bunk beds to a room.  While it is a mixture of chubby boys and girls, all living in the same sterile dormitory nestled in the mountains, a dreary looking building drained of any color, what immediately stands out is the contrast between the stark ugliness of the building and the vibrant colors worn by the kids, where Melanie quite comfortably wears a bright yellow tee shirt.  Seen leading them through a series of calisthenics, after weighing and measuring each one, their routine is defined by their whistle-blowing fitness coach (Michael Thomas), typically reciting how they need to obey the rules, that first and foremost what’s important in any well-run organization is to establish discipline, though what they’re really preaching is group conformity, something these young campers could care less about.  The mood of the kids is utter indifference, as they have little interest in being there and no motivation whatsoever to lose weight, where the choice was obviously made by their unseen parents.  Accordingly, the kids make midnight raids into the kitchen, stuffing themselves with snacks, where they’re of course caught and forced to endure painfully humiliating punishments.  In this coming-of-age exposé, Melanie falls into an easy friendship with her roommates, especially the more mature Verena (Verena Lehbauer), who unashamedly shares her sexual history, which arouses the curiosity of Melanie who has none.  Their friendship develops naturally and never feels forced, reflecting a surprising amount of tenderness in their chatty conversations with each other, where other than being overweight, all the kids display healthy attitudes, even when stripped down for swimming, where surprisingly there’s not an ounce of self-consciousness. 

Melanie develops an interest in the camp physician, Joseph Lorenz, the only adult with any sense of humor, so she habitually takes refuge in his quarters by pretending to have stomach aches, often seen sitting outside his office waiting for him before he arrives for work.  Their flirtatious behavior, originally seen as a diversion from the passing boredom, develops into an infatuation, where she actually has a teenage crush on the man even though he’s likely forty years older.  All of her feelings are shared with Verena, including Melanie’s anxieties and self doubts that perhaps he wouldn’t like her because of her weight, so she begins applying make up and actually dressing up for him.  While he duly notes officially that she should stop waiting outside his office for him, he’s also flattered by her attention, as otherwise he’s seen passing the day alone smoking a cigarette or pouring himself a drink, bored with nothing else to do.  The two of them have a cat and mouse game throughout, where Melanie actually starts feeling empowered by her growing sexuality, where she and Verena are entirely comfortable with their oversized bodies and their looks.  Seidl playfully toys with their relationship, where it becomes a wish fulfillment game, as they’re obviously attracted to each other, but as an adult he’s conflicted, fully aware that having sexual thoughts is one thing, but acting upon them is something else.  There’s an intriguing sense of visualization, never crossing the line, wonderfully blending alpine forest imagery with an enveloping fog, where the audience is never really sure what, if anything, transpires, but there is no doubt a seed is planted in the imagination.  Out of boredom and sheer desperation, Melanie and Verena make a prison break, armed with a stash of those tiny bottles of alcohol that airlines use, finding the nearest club where the two of them joyfully dance the night away.  Although Melanie passes out drunk before the night is done, expressing that impulsive nature of teens and their utter disregard for consequences, always wanting to grow up too soon, she is seen back in her yellow tee shirt with the rest of the weary campers who can’t wait for their dreadful summer experience to be over.  Using a typically austere visual style with no recorded music, Seidl explores the world from a teenager’s point of view, optimistically suggesting the world may be in better hands when they grow up, as they’re not used to the post-war struggles and disappointments of their parents who had to survive the Nazi’s, war, communism, and authoritarian rule, where the inherent prejudices and cynical distrust in government remain, leaving citizens more isolated and alone than ever, where the democratic principles of freedoms were abandoned in order to govern through a more conformist, consumer controlled, yet stabilized society.  Viewing the overall impact, Seidl seems to be suggesting it’s time to loosen the reins and allow Austria to come of age.   

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