The Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl has a discomfiting gift for making the viewer complicit in whatever's happening onscreen. From his early documentaries to the horrifyingly deadpan suburban portrait Dog Days (2001), from the grimy desperation of Eastern Europeans after communism in Import/Export (2007) to his new Paradise trilogy, each of his films makes us feel that we're watching private encounters and vulnerable moments no stranger should be privy to. Don't imagine that Seidl's films traffic in the shallow but undeniable pleasures of voyeurism or schadenfreude. He has a harsher, higher aim, and the alchemist's ability to transform our act of watching others into the brutal recognition that we're watching ourselves,
Needless to say, his astringent, absurdly funny movies aren't everyone's idea of fun. You want escapism? Go to the multiplex. It is summer, after all, and it reeks of it.
Throughout the masterful Paradise: Love, Paradise: Faith, and Paradise: Hope, the veteran director refuses to judge his characters, regardless of the humiliations they endure -- and that he heaps on them. This suggests a degree of honor and empathy, but that is very cold comfort, indeed. Do I dislike Seidl? To the contrary, I admire the man's razor instincts, fixed camera, pinpoint aim and mastery of tone. Imagine Lars Von Trier without the sexism and most of the sadism, or better yet Seidl's fellow unsentimental Austrians, Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon, Amour) and Michael Glawogger (Workingman's Death, Whores' Glory).
Paradise: Love follows Teresa, a zaftig 50-year-old divorcee (Margarete Teisel) as she drops off her 13-year-old daughter Melanie (later to return as the focus of Paradise: Hope) with her religious sister Anna Maria (whose own harrowing turn comes in Paradise: Faith). Then Teresa's off to a Kenya beach resort, where she's introduced to the young African men who've made a cottage industry out of servicing European women.
Seidl isn't especially interested in First World-Third World or white-black social commentary, but rather his character's arc from polite foreigner to gullible consumer to joyless hedonist to bitter exploiter. None of these stages satisfy the increasingly lonely Teresa -- who doesn't even get a text from Melanie on her birthday -- during the course of her acutely painful and wretchedly degrading "vacation."
Meanwhile, in Paradise: Faith, Anna Maria (Maria Hofstatter) is devoting her vacation to cleaning her already immaculate home and knocking uninvited on immigrants' doors with a statue of the Virgin Mary and a pushy invitation to pray. One day she returns home to find her estranged husband, a paraplegic and a Muslim, on the couch. She takes him in, though not into her bed, and eventually a kind of domestic war unfolds.
Paradise: Faith is the most claustrophobic film of the three, and (not coincidentally) the grimmest and least pleasurable. Nonetheless, Hofstatter's extraordinarily brave performance, paired with Seidl's mastery of space and composition, sets it apart from every other film you'll see this year. If your buttons aren't pushed by the depictions of nudity and sex in Paradise: Love, there's a good chance the self-flagellation and various blasphemies in Paradise: Faith will do the trick. Should you take that as a recommendation, so much the better.
In the third film, Paradise: Hope, we learn why Melanie missed her mother's birthday. The teenager is at a weight-loss camp, and is allowed access to her phone for only an hour a day. That's not the real reason, though; Melanie is consumed by the crush she's developed on the much, much older staff doctor.
While not hard for us to accept, and perhaps even a cliche, it's given a delicious Seidl twist: The doctor leads Melanie on. (Delicious and creepy, I hasten to say.) Nothing good can come of this scenario, but in Seidl's hands it unfolds with a clinical precision and patience that is not just fascinating, but riveting.
The female protagonists of the Paradise films, which Seidl wrote with longtime collaborator Veronika Franz, make terrible, squirm-inducing choices, and a knee-jerk response would be to label the director a misogynist who takes pleasure in humiliating women. (That's the charge that's regularly leveled at Von Trier.) But it overlooks the fact that all three characters actively and willfully make their own choices; they are not compelled (by economics or force, say) to act as they do, and aren't victims in the obvious sense.
That said, Teresa, Anna Maria and Melanie go so far as to sacrifice their self-respect, and put themselves in physical danger, in the futile pursuit of fulfillment. In part because Seidl intentionally doesn't supply enough information for us to make psychological analyses of his characters, the trilogy stands as a profoundly feminist view of women's lives in contemporary post-industrial society. And that, dear reader, is what makes Ulrich Seidl such a confounding and important filmmaker.
Paradise: Love screens Thursday, June 13 and Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 7:30pm and Sunday, June 16 at 2pm at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Paradise: Faith plays Thursday, June 20 and Saturday, June 22, 2013 at 7:30pm and Sunday, June 23 at 2:00pm. Paradise: Hope screens Thursday, June 27 and Saturday, June 29, 2013 at 7:30pm and Sunday, June 30 at 2pm. For more information visit ybca.org.