Bumper Crop
By Nick Pinkerton

The Paradise Trilogy
Dir. Ulrich Seidl, Austria, Strand Releasing

If you stray into the fringes of Vienna, far from the tourist attractions and the bejeweled Ringstrasse, you will eventually reach the fatty layer of suburban crapness surrounding the city, remarkable only for a scrupulous tidiness that manages to prettify nothing. This is where Ulrich Seidl’s people live.

Say what you will about Seidl, whose camera gravitates to faces crumpled by age and anguish; he certainly has a worldview, as one can see in the films of his “Paradise” trilogy, each of which follows one female member of an extended Austrian family during their individual summer holidays. The U.S. releases of the “Paradise” films have been staggered throughout the year: Paradise: Love opened in New York in April, followed by Paradise: Faith in summer, and Paradise: Hope this December. (They premiered, respectively, at Cannes, Venice, and Berlin.) This release strategy is perhaps necessary, for a little Seidl goes a long way; when I informed a friend I’d been attending marathon press screenings, he said of Seidl’s films, “Well, I like them, but they make me feel badly.”

Seidl’s perspective is perhaps most succinctly evinced by the opening scene of Love, in which a group of mentally handicapped adults ride bumper cars on a funfair field trip. The cars and their drivers are introduced, unmoving, in a long shot, presenting themselves to the viewer in almost regimental organization. Suddenly, they lurch into action. The view switches to dashboard-mounted cameras that capture the jarring impact of each collision and the dizzy, giddy reaction of the drivers. It’s the first and last that we will see of these men and women, and the standalone sequence feels like a prologue defining Seidl’s take on the human condition: We’re just violently caroming off one another, with scarcely any comprehension of why or how or what for.

Minding the bumper-car group is Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel), the fifty-something protagonist of Love. She will soon leave to sun her cellulite at a resort beach somewhere in Kenya, where the majority of the film takes place. There, encouraged by other, more experienced middle-aged countrywomen, shy, hefty Teresa begins looking for love among the younger African men who congregate around the well-policed boundaries of their hotel. Ostensibly selling carved tchotchkes and scooter rides, they’re also putting their bodies—their one inalienable, monetizable commodity—up for rent.

Before she leaves Vienna, Teresa parks her daughter with Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter), her sister, a brunette with a sour, pinched face. Anna Maria is the subject of Faith, seen at the beginning of that film penitently flagellating herself before a wall crucifix “for the grave sin of unchastity.” Staying at home during her vacation, evangelical Catholic Anna Maria uses her free time to proselytize door-to-door in the city, mounting the stairs to the top-floor walk-ups occupied by immigrants and eccentrics in need of salvation. Anna Maria’s routine is complicated by the unexpected appearance of her estranged husband, Nabil (Nabil Saleh), a paraplegic Arab who takes up residence in her immaculate home and begs for her to resume her conjugal duties.

At the beginning of Hope, Anna Maria drops her niece, Teresa’s thirteen-year-old daughter Melanie (Melanie Lenz), at an alpine fat camp. (She’s inherited her mother’s pear shape.) There, between rounds of numbing, ritualistic exercises and covert bunk parties, Melanie conducts a tentative flirtation with the camp’s spry, middle-aged physician (Joseph Lorenz). Melanie’s courtship, which builds to an aching-but-chaste crescendo, is every bit as predestined for failure as mother Teresa’s simultaneous affairs. For while she can’t stop reaching for her wallet, Teresa cannot accept that the commodification of love is required when assets like wealth and desirability exist in such extreme imbalances.

Switch-hitter Seidl began his career as a documentarian, and he continues to invent his films on-site, without rigid scripts, populating his casts with nonprofessionals like the Dïatcamp children and the Kenyan “beach boys.” (Tiesel and Hofstätter are notable exceptions, but nonetheless don’t conform to any photogenic ideal.) Starting from the stated jumping-off point of Austro-Hungarian playwright Ödön von Horváth’s 1932 Faith, Hope and Charity, Seidl didn’t even conceive of his trilogy as three freestanding features. In his fiction films as in his documentaries, Seidl mixes selective handheld camerawork with a formal, starchy shooting style that’s the inverse of verité: His documentaries feel like fictions, his fictions feel like documentaries.

Dually credited as cinematographers on the “Paradise” films are Wolfgang Thaler—the right hand of both Seidl and his countryman, compatriot, and collaborator Michael Glawogger—and Ed Lachman, the peripatetic American genius. Shooting on Super 16, Thaler and Lachman have composed some essential images, like Love’s indelible shot of a line of pink sunbathing Europeans spaced with mathematic precision, cordoned off from the ragged groupings of black beach boys who wait, stock-still, to be summoned. (The appearance of the “Paradise” films in Europe was accompanied by the availability of a lavish tie-in photo book by the German publisher Hatje Cantz.) Thaler and Lachman had previously platooned in the DP slot on Seidl’s last film, 2007’s Import/ Export, whose parallel narratives concerned two characters in crisscrossing migrations patterns, East to West and West to East, between Vienna and the Ukraine. In Love, Seidl is again looking at globalization and its discontents, a subject likewise dear to Glawogger, whose three-chapter survey of international brothels, 2011’s Whores’ Glory, suggests on a more modest scale the format that Seidl has adopted for this, his most sprawling project.

“Paradise” is more a triptych than a trilogy—with all the reference to medieval altarpieces that that implies. Seidl sees the twenty-first century using the compositional values of the fifteenth, as evidenced in his flat, compressed tableaux, in which cell-like interiors are captured at a stationary medium long-shot, figures held flush in their center. Each image is framed much like the last, until the uniformity is interrupted by an outbreak of ragged, heedless handheld and, usually, violent chaos. Less often, the interruption opens onto a suggestion of something mysterious, overpowering: Leaving Faith, one cannot soon forget the image of Anna Maria’s lone figure huddled under a shelter on the platform of a suburban rail station as storm clouds writhe overhead. In Hope, the monotone litany of blank, white institutional walls is broken only for a foray into an enchanted forest worthy of Grimm’s.

Seidl’s medievalism extends to an engagement with notions of the sacred and profane, particularly as they relate to concepts of beauty and ugliness. He locates peasant faces in the contemporary middle- and lower-middle class—indeed, he is concerned with bodies as much as faces, for he never uses close-ups. Seidl opens himself to accusations of exploitative leering here, as he asks a great deal of exposure from his actors, who bare themselves to harsh lighting that does nothing to make more appealing sagging breasts, buttocks, abdomens. But while Seidl’s camera can be unforgiving, it can also reveal the dormant sensuality in people whom the gatekeepers of visual culture prefer to pretend do not exist. Seen in a brief, deceptive moment of romantic bliss, Teresa, sexually sated and sprawled under a purple mosquito net, suddenly appears like nothing so much as a reclining odalisque, an image of inverse exoticism. Then there is her daughter in Hope, seen rimmed with sunshine at the green bank of a pond, a Renoir bather in a supermarket swimsuit.

Seidl’s belief in in-the-moment inspiration is rewarded in moments of terrible immediacy—though it must be said in his “Paradise” project, as in almost any career-capping double-album, Seidl has had to use his share of filler. As one views so much Seidl together, the limitations of his cinematic toolkit, and his worldview, become apparent. His frequent recourse to scenes of inebriate humiliation—see the S&M turnabout in Dog Days (2001), or the excruciating shaming of a prostitute in Import/Export—is much in evidence. These breakdowns of all decorum are accompanied by Seidl’s signature move: Without warning, he drops his carefully held distance and wades into a confrontational fray, sweltering hotbox scenes that you cannot wait to escape. Cumulatively, this depressive-manic rhythm suggests an idea of life in Austria—and, by implication, in the West—as a regime of repression forever threatening (or promising) to break into disorder. Entering Love, you must be prepared to brave graphic and farcically failed sex scenes, while Faith contains domestic rows between Hofstätter and Saleh that will make you want to phone the Polizei. Hope is, by contrast, the trilogy’s gentlest film—although one suspects this may only be due to laws limiting the depiction of statutory rape. Bolstered by Lenz’s unaffected performance, the 91-minute Hope also feels less willfully putative than its predecessors, both rounding out around two hours and padded with very deliberate repetitions which highlight their protagonists’ repetition of the same destructive behavior, their blinkered inability to just step out of their bumper cars.

Love and Hope rank among Seidl’s most penetrating works, though Faith is disappointingly pat. Seidl is himself a lapsed Catholic, and his 2003 confessional documentary Jesus, You Know, comprising a series of believers speaking to the camera as though addressing God, was a fascinating, nonjudgmental document of the varieties of religious conviction and neurosis. Anna Maria’s fervor is, however, quite simply presented as a case of thwarted, sublimated sexuality, in which the subterranean springs occasionally burst through the surface, as in the moment when she pulls her wall crucifix into her bed, or encounters a possibly imagined Boschian orgy populated by ferociously rutting men and women, shot like hideous cacodemons.

Faith is redeemed by one comic-pathetic highlight: Anna Maria’s missionary visit to the packrat apartment of hoarder Rene Rupnik. Earlier the subject of Seidl’s 1997 documentary The Bosom Friend, Rupnik is seen here wandering his deceased mother’s cluttered bedroom in black bikini briefs, mangling the Lord’s Prayer. Such moments show Seidl’s robust sense of the absurd, a deadpan wit, fringed with pity, which calls forth bitter laughter. (Particularly interesting, watching Love, was hearing how the audience’s laughs broke down between women and men.) Seidl’s humor is evident everywhere, in Love’s symbolically suggestive scenes of invasive monkeys being shooed away by hotel security with slingshots; in Hope’s scene of a line of tubby kids doing somersaults, with one uncoordinated boy rolling on his side.

Those somersaults recall the beguiling final image of Love, in which earthbound Teresa trudges alone along the beach, passed by three native boys lightly cart-wheeling in the opposite direction. Love is the only “Paradise” film that absolutely sticks its ending, but the improvised triptych does have a rough thematic unity. Teresa, Anna Maria, and Melanie all desire things that are impossible in the world as it is—and for this, they are granted their measure of grace by Seidl, the preeminent poet of a purgatorial present.