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Taken together, Ulrich Seidl's three Paradise films, each being released separately in the coming months, will be hard to beat this year for sheer arthouse scald. Rivaling fellow Austrian miserablist Michael Haneke in pessimistic cred if not in fame or formal precision, Seidl has always been a dedicated voyeur of the human zoo at its direst. His features Dog Days (2001) and Import/Export (2007) positively screamed with human suffering, and they helped pioneer the full-frontal, bitter-comic Euro-humiliation style that the new Romanian filmmakers have inherited and made their own. Seidl has a relentless vision, but one worth reckoning with, especially now that he has turned world-class ambitious and crafted a trilogy of doomed emotional struggle.
Seidl is not a half-measurer, and that goes for the irony of his title: the full Paradise is made up of equal parts Love, Faith, and Hope. Don't go walkin' on sunshine just yet. The first film, Love, is about love's absence, demonstrated by way of a radioactive portrait of modern European tourism. We first see the lead, Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel), monitoring a class of developmentally disabled adults at a bumper car concession, an immediate clue as to how near-exploitative, or at least uncomfortably fascinated, Seidl can be with human "imperfection." Teresa herself is a wide-grinning, obese 50-year-old divorcée, who we soon see shipping her sullen teen daughter off to a neighbor's house and disembarking on a solitary vacation. Landing in Kenya, Teresa is bused to a beach resort where laconic Africans work in colonial uniforms, where white Europeans lie like rows of bleached seals on the sand, and where lonely middle-aged women come as sex tourists, paying local "beach boys" as sex toys and escorts.
Co-written with Seidl's wife, Veronika Franz, the trilogy is mapped onto the bones of Dante's Paradiso (specifically, the tests put to Dante in the Eighth Sphere of Heaven) even as it focuses on a family of luckless, desperate contemporary women. This ironic multi-film structure echoes how Krzysztof Kieslowski and his screenwriter Krzysztof Piesiewicz converted the Ten Commandments (The Decalogue) and the French national motto (Three Colors) into pungent modern-day cycles. Seidl's emphasis is on human failure and unbridgeable differences; in his sphere, there's no median "normal," and everyone in Love is either a lithe Kenyan youth or a whale-like European bourgeois. The locals chant "hakuna matata" until it makes your teeth grind. Bikinied and naive, control-freak Teresa dives into the decadence shyly, encouraged by a blowsy friend, eventually beginning an off-the-reservation hunt for intimacy and satisfaction.
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"Boys" are never hard to find—they swoop down to offer every single woman inexpensive tchotchkes or guided tours, swarming like gnats. (In Seidl's tableaux, which recall Gregory Crewdson's, the young Kenyans stand waiting on the beach, just beyond the guarded rope that separates them from the tourist's chaises longues.) Focused more on love than just sex, Teresa endures a downward trajectory, boy to boy, watching her own innocence die as her hunger for companionship is exploited for cash—extracting donations for mythic sick relatives is the default beach-boy grift.
Ah, exploitation. Every body is objectified, in one way or another. Teresa is an utterly convincing character. Her reserve tanks of anger, strength, and self-possession keep Paradise: Love from ever becoming a simple morality tale. In fact, her capacity for humiliation is nearly heroic. Seidl's unblinking perspective can seem cruel—Tiesel and the rest of the film's lunging Euro Moms have no secrets from us—but this is Seidl at his most powerful and humane, in a Diane Arbus kind of way, bringing us intimately close to characters movies otherwise exclude. There's no mercy for the zaftig actress as Seidl observes Teresa alone on her balcony bursting out of her underwear, or wryly trying to muster an erection from a boy her friends bought her as a birthday present, but the attention and respect for her reality feels generous and loving, too.
Like too few filmmakers, Seidl knows how to bring the pain, as his heroine implicitly faces the end of her romantic lifespan. This is an anti-daydream, a welcome countercharge to the Under the Tuscan Sun school of bullshit single-woman-abroad romances, and you could do worse than conceive of it as Eat, Pray, Sit Alone Weeping. It might be the most lonesome film about a tropical vacation we've seen, and the greatest film ever made about the weird socioeconomics of tourism.
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