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BERLIN - Funny, disquieting and featuring more sexual humiliation and self-flagellation than any project with which James Franco is currently connected, Ulrich Seidl's newly completed "Paradise" trilogy has recently bombarded the European festival circuit -- in a manner unmatched since Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Three Colors" films hit the Venice-Berlin-Cannes route, almost 20 years ago, in the space of just nine months. Less than a year after pitiless sex-tourism study "Paradise: Love" jolted Cannes and religious fundamentalism parable "Paradise: Faith" took a major Venice prize, the youth-focused "Paradise: Hope" has seen out the Austrian auteur's unsettling vision with a premiere closer to home at the Berlinale.
For most critics, the comparisons between Kieslowski and Seidl's narratively separable, female-led trilogies are likely to end there, though you might say both have saved, if not the best, at least the warmest for last. Standing for fraternity and bathed in the hot-blooded hues of its title, "Three Colors: Red" celebrated companionship and human reliance after two more isolationist chapters. Set on an austere-looking fat farm for neglected Austrian teenagers, "Hope" doesn't initially promise to deliver on its title, but the peculiarly tender character study that emerges is the most generous, even the most humane, of the three. (As humane, that is, as any film in which the youthful ensemble chants a recurring a chorus of "If you're happy and you know it, clap your fat" can be -- Seidl's world remains a compellingly off-kilter one).
That's a surprise and a relief after the expertly crafted "Faith" rather smugly succumbed to the low-hanging fruit dangled by its kerr-azily Christian protagonist. With the trilogy complete, the middle film now looks the odd one out, with "Love" and "Hope" plainly bonded not just by the DNA of their mother-daughter lead characters, but by a challenging mutual concern with body and self-image.
The power of "Love," so to speak, snuck up on me in the days and weeks following the numbing first impact of its severe take on middle-aged female sexuality; "Hope," however, is immediately affecting as it introduces Melli (astonishing first-time actress Melanie Lenz, aged just 13 at the time of shooting), a psychologically vulnerable, clinically obese teen only beginning to form a sense of what sexuality might be.
While her mother Teresa (the heavy anti-heroine of "Love") is promiscuously vacationing in Kenya, Melli is bundled off by aunt Anna Maria (the hawkish anti-heroine of "Faith") to an extreme weight-loss camp. Where the solidarity of like-minded and like-figured girls builds her self-esteem while dangerously accelerating her sense of obligation to her unformed libido. This unhealthy development manifests itself chiefly as a semi-predatory crush on the institution's fiftysomething doctor (Joseph Lorenz), a seemingly mild-mannered man who nonetheless indulges and abuses Melli's fantasies with inconsistent displays of affection.
The latest in a curiously abundant run of recent Austrian films to address the hot-button issue of pedophilia, Seidl's film remains admirably, ambiguously complicated about the nature and motivations of a relationship built on equal parts play-acting and genuine delusion -- much like Melli's mother's unhappy gigolo fling thousands of miles away in Africa. (The biggest audience laugh in a film that, subject matter notwithstanding, is rich in drollery came in response to a clueless phone message left my Melli, wishing her a good time in Kenya -- full acquaintance with the trilogy will help with such in-jokes and parallels, but this is still the most independently accessible film of the three.)
Seidl's keenly absurd eye for detail and physical ritual is wide open here -- abetted, as in the other two, by the stark, symmetrical compositions of cinematographer Ed Lachman ("Far From Heaven") -- with much incidental humor gleaned from the everyday operation of the fat camp. No mention is ever made of one perfectly lean young male inmate, though one can only imagine his parents are particularly demanding supermodels. As in "Love," the camera casts a calm, occasionally confrontational eye over bodies not generally seen in mainstream filmmaking as fit for visual consumption, allowing our immediate response as viewers/voyeurs to direct us to our own prejudices.
The film has an unnervingly natural ear for early-teen girl talk, too, as Melli and her new friends (notably the slightly older Verena, played by the marvelous Verena Lehbauer) shoot the shit on matters ranging from over-slobbery kisses to pubic shaving to their parents' "delayed adolescence" -- the latter an observation that, in light of the events of "Paradise: Love," suggests these kids may be smarter even than they know. They're certainly smarter than we'd like them to be, which is a large part of what makes "Paradise: Hope" so uncomfortable and exhilarating, an oddly moving finale to a trilogy that seems less ironic in long shot.
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