By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist February 17, 2013 at 2:55PM
The final instalment in his 'Paradise' trilogy (here are our reviews of parts 1 and 2, "Paradise: Love" and "Paradise: Faith"), "Paradise: Hope" sees Austrian director Ulrich Seidl in gentler, less provocative form, delivering what most found to be certainly the most approachable film of the three when it played at the Berlin Film Festival this week. And it seems that has been the trajectory of these films overall, from an excoriating and difficult-to-watch opener with 'Love,' through the similarly controversial but more blackly comic 'Faith,' and now to 'Hope,' in which Seidl turns in his least thematically challenging movie, giving free reign to his talent for absurdly humorous visuals and straying dangerously close to a territory that, for him at least, could be called "sweet." That he centers all that around a 13-year-old resident of a summer camp for overweight children and features one of the camp's adults struggling against his inappropriate desire for her and we can still call the film "gentle," perhaps conveys the relativistic nature of this summation. Even here, we are in Seidl-land, and discomfort and transgression hover around the edges of the frame so palpably as to make the realization that nothing bad is really going to happen certainly a relief, but almost beside the point.
Melanie (another of Seidl's first-time actors, Melanie Lenz) is the sullen teenage daughter of Teresa (the amazing Margarete Tiesel), who led "Paradise: Love," and the niece of Anna Maria (Maria Hofstatter), who was the religious fanatic at the centre of "Paradise: Faith." And where those previous films focused on each of the female protagonists taking a holiday of some sort, so does 'Hope,' following Melanie being packed off to fat camp while her mother trawls for sex in Kenya – in fact 'Love' and 'Hope' mesh neatly in showing the mutual frustration of mother and daughter at never being able to catch the other on the phone.
Melanie quickly bonds with the other girls in her dorm, notably with the irrepressible, voluble and apparently sexually experienced Verena (Verena Lehbauer), and just as quickly forms an attachment to the camp's doctor (Joseph Lorenz). Strangely, despite the setting, Seidl seems to have less of a fixation with flesh and fleshiness here than he did in 'Love,' and instead he seems to be using the fat camp as simply a vehicle to investigate teenage interaction, albeit in a way that affords his droll camera the opportunity for some surreal tableaux of tubby tumbling bodies.
The development of Melanie's age-inappropriate crush forms the main thrust of the narrative, and her frequent, increasingly unjustified visits to his office are some of the best evocations of the excruciating inarticulacy of first love that we've seen. But Seidl is nothing if not even-handed in his impulse to divide the culpability for any given situation equally among its participants, and so it's soon made clear that the doctor is anything but impervious to Mellie's charms, and suddenly the spectre of paedophilia and exploitation looms. As Mellie and Verena find new ways to break the camp's rules, the doctor does battle with his own worse nature, leading to one scene in which a passed-out Mellie is entirely at his mercy...and here it is, we think. This is where the ugliness that has threatened for so long takes center stage. And then it doesn't.
Seidl clearly delights in toying with our expectations and our fears, and perhaps it points to something amiss in our own character that we'd prefer something dreadful to happen to nothing happening at all. But for that all he's a master at building a mood and a tone, here that mood is not necessarily borne out by anything anyone actually does, it just lends an uneasy air to the fringes of the film, while never coalescing into a real coherent thesis. And while he gives full rein to his instincts in terms of style – long, unhurried takes and static, almost pictorialist framing that lends a removed, ironic commentary to the interactions it shows – in 'Hope' we never get the catharsis of anything dramatic happening to disturb or justify this rhythm. It left us feeling a little underwhelmed at the end result.
All this is to say that as unpleasant as 'Love,' for example, often was to watch, there was a provocation and a shock value to the ugliness it showed that remained with us long after the film finished. 'Hope' doesn't lead to anything in particular, and so all those patient takes and slow, observational moments amount to what, exactly? We can't help but feel that by comparison with the meaty and compelling issues he takes on so fearlessly, so scabrously in the other entries, "Paradise: Hope" ends up somewhat toothless. [B]