film

The Greatest of These Is Love

Ulrich Seidl, Paradise: Love, 2012, 35 mm, color, sound, 120 minutes. Beach Boy (Gabriel Nguma Mwarua) and Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel).

IMAGINE A WORLD in which the environment is pristine, the architecture sublime, the people polite; a world in which each existential need has been met and all social problems solved—but everyone is quietly miserable or raving mad. Welcome to Ulrich Seidl’s Austria. For thirty years, the Vienna-based filmmaker has unveiled disturbing aspects of the quotidian using forms that impede the way we register what is unrehearsed and what staged. Mixing lay with professional actors, improvised dialogue with spontaneous encounters, and a primarily stationary camera with bursts of kinesis, Seidl renders the borders between the documentary and fiction film unknowable and unnecessary.

After individual studies of coupling, conformity, and small-town and big-city hypocrisy (Dog Days [2001]), the church (Jesus, You Know [2003]), and East-West relations (Import/Export [2007]), Seidl has delivered the Paradise trilogy, a stunning culmination—indeed, an escalation—of his previous work. In an unprecedented act of art-house prolificacy, Seidl premiered the three films within one year at Europe’s most prestigious festivals: Love at Cannes (2012), Faith at Venice (2012), and Hope at Berlin (2013).

Those familiar with the cinematic structures of Dog Days and Import/Export will recognize the parallel narrative and character constellations that run through the Paradise films. Here the various strands meet via middle-aged Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel), her sister Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter), and her daughter, Melanie (Melanie Lenz). They are the protagonists of Love, Faith, and Hope, respectively; together, the women are a psychogram of contemporary Austrian society.

Love, the trilogy’s first installment, begins with the revelation of paradise; the subsequent proceedings chart its loss. In the opening shots, Teresa is preparing to travel on holiday to Kenya to meet a friend who, she soon learns, is a seasoned sex tourist eager to show her the ropes. Feeling fat, ugly, and undesirable at home, the fifty-year-old hopes that the local beach boys will see her as “a person, not just a body”—and simultaneously satisfy her sexual urges. A tested theater and television actress, Tiesel, as Teresa, delivers a naturalistic performance with the unstudied charm of a nonprofessional. The role, of course, hinges on her—or, to be more precise, on her body. Obesity lends dramatic accents and engenders crisscrossed structures of revulsion and sympathy: When the protagonist arrives at the resort hotel, for instance, she immediately begins cleaning the room, wearing only undergarments overwhelmed by cellulite, pendulous breasts, and errant folds of flesh; later, in postcoital slumber under purple mosquito netting, she seems an incarnation of a Lucian Freud grotesque. Seidl’s camera is pitiless.

That Teresa and her more experienced compatriots are women complicates our ethical calculations, creating a moral ambiguity typically absent from our judgments of the clichéd (if perhaps all too real) sleazy male sex tourists they resemble. The encounter between these divorcées and the local youth, an all but inevitable phenomenon driven by unfulfilled need and facilitated by gaping disparities of wealth, yields an unsettling mixture of racism, feminist liberation, colonialist arrogance, and subaltern guile. The liaisons between the tubby European quinquagenarians and fit African lads on the beaches and in love hotels are vexed by constantly shifting power relations: Although the women control the purse strings and treat the men as erotic commodities, they also cry out for romance, complain that the men do not love them, and suffer from jealousy—Teresa, for instance, asks her escorts, “How many white women have slept in this bed?” In a pivotal (if literally anticlimactic) scene, Teresa’s friends surprise her with a birthday present, a gigolo complete with a pink bow on his penis. They spontaneously devise a party game: Whoever can get him hard gets him. Despite their entreaties and stripteases, the man (barely more than a boy) remains flaccid, and the women’s feelings are clearly wounded. They had come to a place where, despite their age and corpulence, they felt themselves desirable; but ultimately, they discover, not even the money they so liberally spread can make them attractive, let alone buy them love. By the end of her stay, Teresa feels scammed, financially and emotionally.

As in other Seidl films (especially Animal Love [1996]), animals serve as a metaphor and people’s attitudes toward them as a shibboleth. Shortly after arriving in Africa, Teresa tenderly feeds and photographs the little monkeys on her hotel terrace. This both parallels and contrasts with her treatment of Kenyan men. She tells one gigolo, “I’m not an animal,” and instructs him how to caress her enormous bosom with feeling, “not pinch”; later, as he sleeps, she takes a snapshot of his prodigious genitals, an unabashed memento of her safari.

Illuminated by luridly beautiful African colors and a brilliant, piercing sun, Love is surely a critique of Orientalism, but the film also demonstrates that exploitation is a mutual outcome. Seidl’s unblinking, full-frontal address forces the spectator to see bodies rather than people, to see objects rather than subjects, mirroring the gaze the women detest in Western men and yet the very gaze they themselves cast on Africans. And the Kenyans, for their part, willingly play their roles, every word and deed calibrated to extract as much money as possible from the foreign women they fastidiously refuse to charge for their “love.” The conundrum resembles that of Schrödinger’s cat: Every character is simultaneously victim and perpetrator; everyone is, to varying degrees, both innocent and guilty.

Although set in suburban Austria and largely confined to gloomy interior shots, Faith picks up where Love leaves off. It begins with a woman praying in a darkened room to a crucifix at least half her size. “So many people are obsessed with sex. Free them from their hell. Free them from carnal desire, please,” Anna Maria (Teresa’s sister) beseeches, before stripping down to her waist and vigorously self-flagellating. Here again, utopian energies commingle awkwardly with sexuality; the protagonist, a medical technician by day, spends her free time and vacation as a Catholic missionary and Jesus devotee.

Anna deploys religion ostensibly as a way to suppress lascivious yearnings, but in the end faith becomes the displaced locus of her more earthly desires. Compared with the ultramodern mammography and CAT-scan technology Anna uses at work in Vienna, her house betrays a startlingly low-tech and atavistic interior design, dominated by crosses, idols, and portraits of Jesus and the pope. In a series of documentary-like encounters, Anna Maria visits strangers in their homes in an attempt to deliver them from the evils of fornication and adultery. These scenes are punctuated by depictions of rituals at home: Anna cleaning obsessively, crawling through the house on her bare knees, playing songs of praise on her electronic keyboard, and intoning improvised liturgies that resemble steamy love letters to the “most handsome man.” The erotic fixation on Jesus becomes especially problematic when, well into the story, Anna Maria’s wheelchair-bound and previously absent Egyptian husband returns from an extended stay with his family and demands to be cared for. At this point the genre veers from quirky character study into domestic gothic, as Anna Maria’s extreme fidelity to Catholicism belies the resulting neglect and torture of her paralyzed Muslim husband. Beyond the horror tropes, some viewers may be disturbed by the scenario’s flirtation with the allegorical: A dependent, misogynist Muslim with a gray chin-curtain beard attacks the religious devotion of his ungenerous, hypocritical Christian wife, who lords her superiority over him in a post-9/11 world.

Faith’s screening at the 2012 Venice film festival was the most scandalous of the director’s career—but not because of its depiction of Muslim–Christian relations. The ultraconservative Catholic group NO194 pressed charges against Seidl, Hofstätter, and festival organizers for “blasphemy,” an accusation based almost entirely on a two-minute sequence in which Anna Maria pleasures herself under the covers with a crucifix. The debate (perhaps like the scene in question) proved gratuitous, serving only to increase the profile of this right-wing fringe organization and, of course, that of the film itself, which went on to win the festival’s Special Jury Prize. The pattern of critical and popular controversy is familiar from other art-cinema “outrages.” This is not to imply that Seidl’s provocation was pure calculation; nonetheless, in Faith the tenuous balance between naturalism and artifice that is the very crux of the director’s work perhaps shifts too far toward the fantastic.

More directly than the first two Paradise installments, Hope depicts institutional life and its absurd routines. The film begins with Anna Maria taking her niece to a fat camp, where Melanie will spend her summer while her mother, Teresa, vacations in Kenya. With its repeated waist measurements and weigh-ins, endless somersaults and pool laps, credos (“Discipline is the cornerstone of success”) and affirmations (“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your fat”), Melanie’s camp existence is as corporeal as Teresa’s Kenyan erotic package tour and as scripted as Anna Maria’s Catholicism. Mundane daily activities reveal the insanity of normality and supply bits of information and clues about character where dialogue, music, and other more explicit narrative signposts are largely absent.

Hope’s complicating element is the one relationship that develops beyond the stocky teens’ rites of passage: the manipulative phone calls to Mother and Father, bull sessions about virginity and sex, late-night raids of the fridge, and beery spin-the-bottle contests. Whereas Love upends the conventional hierarchies of white/black and man/woman, Hope reroutes the typical perspective of the classic Humbert-Lolita tale. It relays a flirtation between a good-looking, married, middle-aged doctor and the obese thirteen-year-old Melanie from the perspective of the infatuated girl. Narrated in a spare, earnest way (with none of the bracing caricature of Todd Solondz’s Happiness [1998]), the story places us in the uncomfortable position of empathizing with Melanie when her first crush is so cruelly unrequited, even though we realize the relationship would have been horribly inappropriate and potentially disastrous.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Hope is its title. Many commentators suggest that Seidl’s attitude toward his subjects is offensive, contemptuous and inhumane, and they detect a sneer in his invocation of paradise, love, faith, and hope. It is, of course, easy to see where they get that idea; rather than itself being exploitative or cynical, however, the filmmaker’s project is to investigate how exploitation and cynicism arise despite our best intentions. His films anatomize utopian reckonings with an imperfect world, where characters pursue idealistic goals the achievement of which produces dangerous side effects; where social distance and geographic proximity inflect itineraries of desire, causing fates to collide and often explode. The Paradise trilogy (building on Seidl’s earlier work) may thematize desire and in particular the abysses to which the pursuit of happiness can lead, but the aim of the films is not to provide pleasure. Rather, Seidl confronts us with scenarios that, however diligently we may scrutinize them, remain inextricably funny yet disturbing, ridiculous yet sobering, absurd yet ultimately tragic—situations that are morally intense and intensely ambiguous in a way that forecloses any “appropriate” response. The Paradise triptych shines a harsh light on the viewer’s own utopian designs, forcing us to acknowledge that the satisfaction of our wants and “needs,” benign as they may seem, contributes to a vast network of misery. It’s not a pretty picture, but, as the director himself has repeatedly insisted, Ulrich Seidl is “not a wedding photographer.”

Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy runs December 16–22 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Artforum.

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