Originally conceived as a five-hour epic that would cut back and forth among three separate stories, Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise instead wound up in the form of a trilogy. Paradise: Love, about a middle-aged woman playing sex tourist in Kenya, was released in the U.S. last April; Paradise: Faith, focusing on that woman’s devoutly religious sister, followed in August. Both films were punishing, single-minded tracts, so there was little reason to expect much from the final chapter, Paradise: Hope, in which the 13-year-old daughter/niece of the other two protagonists heads off to fat camp—a scary setting, given Seidl’s already marked fixation on corpulent flesh. Improbably, however, this tale of a creepy pedophilic relationship is the most tender, nuanced, and deeply felt picture Seidl has ever made. What’s more, there’s no need to have seen the other two films, as Hope works beautifully all by its lonesome.
“Lonesome” is the best word to describe Melanie (non-pro Melanie Lenz), who seems forlorn from the moment her aunt drops her off at an isolated bunker-like retreat where obese children try to shed pounds. Like the others, she gamely takes part in boot-camp-style exercise routines (photographed by Seidl in his signature geometric style, but without undue gawking), sneaks the occasional piece of candy, and makes depressed calls home when allowed a few minutes with her cell phone. (Those who’ve seen Love will be aware that Mom is having her own difficulties in Kenya at this time, but it’s not crucial information.) But her demeanor changes radically when she falls hard for the camp’s doctor (Joseph Lorenz), a fiftysomething man with a playful nature and nowhere near enough boundaries. Indeed, he seems to reciprocate her feelings, encouraging Melanie to “play doctor” with him in the manner of little kids.
Obviously, this dynamic is not remotely healthy. At the same time, though, Seidl and his co-screenwriter, Veronika Franz, subtly draw a parallel between forbidden desire and obesity, both of which involve a human need (attention, food) that can’t be ignored but can be abused. Melanie’s obsession with the doctor isn’t especially sexual—talking with her best friend at the camp, Verena (Verena Lehbauer), she admits she finds the whole idea kind of gross—and it’s clear that she’s confused the role of a lover and a parent, a mistake that many people continue making for their entire lives. The doctor, for his part, is unquestionably a perv, yet there’s also a sense that he’s mostly responding to her visible ache. It’s a genuinely complex situation, one with no possibility of a happy ending. For whatever reason, though, Seidl isn’t in a despairing mood this time, and allows these people an uncharacteristic (for him) measure of dignity, concluding the trilogy on a welcome note of placid forbearance. Hope springs eternal for a reason, it seems.