by Philip Concannon
Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Faith opens with a scene of self-flagellation, and anyone familiar with this Austrian director might be justified in suggesting that watching three of his films back-to-back is tantamount to the same thing. The titles Seidl has given to his Paradise trilogy are Love, Faith and Hope, but these are not the words that one readily associates with his films – words like bleak, explicit, confrontational and provocative are more likely to be found in reviews of his work, which has drawn as many criticisms as it has plaudits over the years. Despite all this, Sunday June 16th was denoted as “Seidl Sunday” in the UK, with a handful of cinemas across the country offering a rare chance to see his trilogy in its entirety. I decided it was an opportunity not to be missed, but I must admit that I walked towards the BFI Southbank with a number of questions in my mind and a certain sense of dread in my heart. If I’m looking for paradise in the cinema, is Ulrich Seidl really the man I want to take me there?
The characters in these films may be seeking paradise, but of course, the situations they find themselves in more closely resemble purgatory. We meet all three of Seidl’s protagonists in the prologue for Love. Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) is a middle-aged Austrian woman making final preparations for her Kenyan holiday, but before she can depart she has to drop off her teenage daughter Melanie (Melanie Lenz) at the home of her sister Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter). Anna Maria is a devoutly religious nurse whose spends her every waking moment worshipping Christ, whether she’s inflicting a painful penance on herself or lugging a statue of the Virgin Mary around town to try and win the hearts and minds of those in need. 13 year-old Melanie is a typical teen, sulky and unresponsive around her mother, and permanently glued to her mobile phone, but she’s about to get a rude awakening as she has been enlisted in a diet camp for the summer.
All three of these characters are united in their quest for something they cannot hope to possess. Teresa’s holiday is a search for love, but she is looking in entirely the wrong place. The Kenyan resort in which she is staying in offers the possibility of sex with young African males, whose bodies are one of the few saleable commodities they possess. Teresa’s fellow travellers understand this trade-off, but she wants more. She wants a young man to look into her heart and really desire her for who she is. Of course, the men are only too happy to make declarations of love for as long as Teresa has money in her pocket, and it is incredibly sad to see this woman being sucked in by the smooth-talking Munga (Peter Kazungu), who quickly begins telling her tales of woe about his sister being unable to afford her child’s medical bills.
One of the most striking images in Love is the beachfront on which the white European tourists sunbathe while young Africans stand patiently on the other side of a barrier, waiting for someone to cross so they can pounce with their trinkets for sale. This set-up potently expresses the film’s dramatic shift – Teresa and her friends think they are in control with these quiet young men, whom they objectify and mock, but as soon as Teresa crosses the rope she is on their territory, and they know exactly how to manipulate a woman like her. The power games are reversed again later in the film, when the four women drunkenly toy with an African boy in their hotel room, competing to make him produce an erection; a long sequence that’s very uncomfortable to watch.
Seidl loves his long takes, which immerse the audience in the characters’ experience and spare us nothing, even as we might wish to look away. There’s no doubt that he enjoys making viewers uncomfortable, and such an approach leaves him open to accusations of indulging in voyeurism, shock tactics of exploitation. I think he gets away with it in Love, largely thanks to a hugely sympathetic and moving lead performance from Tiesel and a deft sense of pacing and humour, but Faith falls some way short of the standard set by the first film in the triptych. Faith‘s Anna Maria is portrayed with astonishing conviction by Hofstätter, but the character immediately comes across as worryingly one-dimensional. She has given over her whole life to God, with crucifixes hanging in every room of her house and a picture of Jesus next to her bed that she kisses before falling asleep, and we see her roaming around her home on bloody knees for hours as she prays. Seidl shoots all of this in the same detached, non-judgemental style that he films Love, but Faith‘s problems occur when the film’s secondary character is introduced.
Although she appears to be a lonely spinster, we learn that Anna Maria is married when her husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh) – a wheelchair-bound Muslim – returns and demands that she perform her wifely duties. All of this raises too many questions that Seidl has no interest in answering. How and why did these two people marry? What was the accident that left him paralysed? Where has he been for the past two years? Did Anna Maria’s religious extremism only begin in that period? By giving us no sense of what their life together was like before, Seidl simply gives us a portrait of an odd couple who have no business co-habiting, and he sits back to watch the sparks fly. There’s no question that their ensuing conflict is often fascinating to observe, but the tension feels contrived and watching Nabil torment his wife in scene after scene eventually has a deadening effect. Some respite is offered by Anna Maria’s door-to-door Virgin Mary excursions, particularly a hilarious encounter with hoarder René Rupnik – who featured in Seidl’s 1997 documentary The Bosom Friend – but this film about the challenge of maintaining spiritual purity feels diluted through Seidl’s needlessly blunt approach.
While Anna Maria maintains that Jesus is the only man she needs in her life, her niece Melanie is also pining for a man she cannot have. At the draconian fat camp where she is resigned to spending the summer, Melanie strikes up a flirtatious relationship with the camp’s doctor (Joseph Lorenz), which quickly develops into an all-consuming crush. This is tricky territory and Seidl negotiates it quite brilliantly, with his skill at eliciting superb performances from his female leads extending to this film’s terrific young cast. The frank conversations that Melanie shares with her more confident and experienced best friend Verana (Verena Lehbauer) feel authentic and natural, and Seidl expertly captures the confused emotions of a hopeless teenage crush. When Melanie is rebuffed by the doctor in whom she has invested so much hope, you can almost hear the sound of her heart breaking as you look at Lenz’s forlorn face. I never would have anticipated such a touching, tender and funny examination of first love from Ulrich Seidl, but Hope is exactly that.
These stories were originally intended to exist in one film, but after amassing 90 hours of footage through his improv-heavy style, Seidl wisely decided to let each tale exist on its own and the result is an extraordinary bold and impressive trilogy. Certainly, you won’t see many better female performances this year than those on display here, and you won’t see many films as strikingly shot, with cinematographers Wolfgang Thaler and Ed Lachman crafting a series of stunning compositions, whether they are on a sunlit African beach or trapped in the confines of Anna Maria’s home. Of course, Seidl will never be to everyone’s taste (“I can’t watch any more of that shit,” I overheard a woman say as she left Love) but it seems to me that these pictures are the most accomplished, compassionate and emotionally complex films I’ve seen from him to date. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a Seidl triple-bill to all viewers, but these films deserve to be seen, one way or another.