Paradise: Hope (Paradies: Hoffnung)
Austria (2013) Dir. Ulrich Seidl
And so we reach the final instalment in the stark and confrontational Paradise trilogy from Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl.
The third family member to be put under the spotlight is 13 year-old Melanie – or Mellie – (Melanie Lenz), the daughter of Theresa from Love and niece to Anna Marie from Faith, who makes a brief appearance here when dropping Mellie off at a summer fat camp. There she, along with fifteen other kids around the same age, is left under the aegis of a tough group of motivators to help them lose weight.
That is the plan of course but like all teenagers they find a way to play the game during the day then at night rebel against the shackles of their enforced diets with contraband drink, sweets, cigarettes and even condoms! Melli however becomes oddly smitten with the camp‘s resident doctor (Joseph Lorenz), a man a good forty years older than Mellie, but seems to want to reciprocate despite knowing it is wrong.
Alarm bells might be ringing as to the direction this story is going to take, but I’ll say now that this isn’t the case – at least not to any extremes. Seidl has previous in shocking the audiences with raw truths so one’s pessimism could be forgiven, although even he knows where to draw the line. But don’t think that Hope is going to be an easy ride, Seidl has other ways of making us feel uncomfortable.
Seidl’s use of teen protagonists proves to be the perfect vessel for achieving this. In contrast to the two previous films there is nothing explicit here except some language in the open discussions between the girls. Mellie befriends the barely older Verena (Verena Lehbauer) who talks with alarming frankness about her love life, which albeit limited, is considerably more than it should be for a girl her age.
Speaking with the nonchalance of someone beyond her years and well versed in promiscuity Verena’s confessions will shock and not just because of her candid attitude. It is the realisation that Verena could be any girl in any country in any street. She could be someone’s daughter, sister or niece and it is a truth many of us aren’t comfortable with facing up to, especially parents. Equally unsettling is how Verena encourages Mellie to pursue the doctor, giving her tips on how to get the older man to reveal his intentions.
In the doctor we have a man who should know better and for the most part we assume this is the case, his initial bedside manner appearing to be no more than banter to create a sense of ease. Quite what the infatuation is on his part we shall never understand or even know but there is a spark which, to his credit, he is determined to fight. After some fractious and awkward moments where Mellie tries to force the issue the pair find themselves alone on a field trip, where Mellie simply hugs the doctor like she would her own father.
Most of the kids at the camp – played by non-professional actors – come from broken homes with differing attitudes towards their parents. They are given one hour a day to phone home and when Verena rings her mother to says how much fun the camp is, the next call to her father is a negative report instead, showing which parent she is closer to. Mellie tries to ring her mother to no avail which ties directly to the same problem Theresa had in Love whenever she tried to ring her daughter, unifying the trilogy together for those who have seen the first two films.
Seidl’s black humour has been toned down considerably for this film, with the expectations being that the fat camp setting would lend itself to much mockery of the overweight teens. In fact only one scene comes close, where a female instructor has the class all lined up for a sing-a-long of “If You’re Happy And You Know It”, only with the tag line “clap your fat”! Otherwise it is the quietly absurd sight of the campmates being marched across the screen in a regimental fashion that offers the closest thing to a guilty giggle.
Perhaps the most interesting tact Seidl adopts here is that how the kids themselves are so content with their bodies and don’t feel any less acceptable or worthy as human beings. The fact Verena boasts such a healthy sex life is either a testament to this positive attitude or Austrian boys like their girls on the plus size. Thus we are deprived of the didactic Hollywood moral that advocates the tenet of being beautiful in the inside, but Seidl’s unfiltered approach is a refreshingly honest and more affecting one.
Melanie Lenz, like her on-screen mother and aunt before her, is laid bare as the focal point of the story, only her journey is the more emotionally challenging of the three due to her age. While not completely naive, Mellie doesn’t have the years of experience her mother and aunt have to fall back on thus engenders our understanding on a deeper level. Joseph Lorenz as the doctor is the real enigma of this tale, a man whose tacit struggle with a developing unnatural curiosity is challenging viewing but is a precipice even Seidl stays at the edge of.
And like all good things, the Paradise trilogy comes to an end. Hope might be the shortest of the three films but it delivers another frank and uncompromising look at this world of ours, yet given the potential Lolita-esque storyline, remains the lightest in tone.
Ulrich Seidl is not a filmmaker who intends to entertain but one who wants us to think and reflect upon the world we live in. These three films may not have the prestige of say The Godfather Trilogy, but as provocative slices of social commentary their importance and impact shouldn’t be underestimated.