Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy has already this year horsewhipped us with Love and thumbscrewed us with Faith, so now it’s time to be kneecapped by Hope. Co-written with Seidl’s wife, Veronika Franz, the triptych announces its Dante interface (precisely, the tests Dante endures in the Eighth Sphere of Paradiso), but the irony of the reference shouldn’t be taken too literally — Seidl’s tone is fearless realism, and his focus is on a triangle of luckless, loveless contemporary women. But whereas the first two thirds are caustic and brutal, the final film is sunnier, treading the queasy edge of self-destruction but not falling in.
Hope or no hope, these are nothing if not the stories of three very horrible summer vacations. But while Hope remains appallingly Seidlian in its unblinking yen for human imperfection, it’s also lovable. This time we’re watching Melanie (Melanie Lenz), the petulant overweight tween we spotted in the first film; while her mother (Love’s Teresa) squanders her self-respect in Kenya and her aunt (Faith‘s Anna Maria) pounds Viennese doors proselytizing with her madonna, Melanie does time at a softly militaristic diet camp occupying an empty school in the Lower Austrian forests. Rows of obese adolescents at weigh-ins and doing calisthenics, viewed in cold-hearted wide-angle — Seidl’s ardent fascination for freakshow imagery has found its least appalling and most innocent spectacle. We’re never sure which is comic, the helpless kids themselves or the camp master’s doomed effort to convert them into boot-camp warriors. Or both, or neither. (The “hope” in play has little to do with weight loss.) Amid the dictatorial exercises and absurd rituals, the inexperienced (and fatherless) Melanie hardly worries about slimming down (the bunkmates routinely steal junk food and beer at night), and is instead focused on nervously pioneering a sexual-romantic connection with the camp’s gray-haired ne’er-do-well of a doctor (Joseph Lorenz).
In Seidl’s world, this quasi-pedophilic arc could have led to monstrousness, but instead, and despite an almost von Trierian detour into the woods for some body-sniffing, the film veers clear of disaster, and even turns wistful. Seen from a distance, teenage peccadilloes are universal, and universally sweet. As before, Seidl’s visual style — bitter-comic three-walled tableaux — makes the scenario’s tension between desire and reality almost unbearable, but Melanie, a thoroughly unexceptional and inarticulate girl, offers hope by simple virtue of her youth, her unformed romantic folly, and her guileless courage.
All three women in all three films refuse to surrender to alienation, and each fights her fight in the trenches of masculine ideas of who or what they should be. Though each chapter is focused in its own way on feminine sexual dissatisfaction, the Paradise project has a disarming shape to it — ascendant, rather like The Divine Comedy itself. (Then again, few would have predicted the comic uptick that climaxes Kieslowski’s bleak 10-part Dekalog, obviously Seidl’s inspiration.) If this trilogy capper doesn’t leave the contusions the other films have, it remains a necessary salve, particularly if you dare to binge-watch.