With a teenager falling for an older man at fat camp, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Hope remains optimistic of a better life. All it needs is a little discipline.
Embarrassing Bodies by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The third and final part of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, Paradise: Hope reunites the two previous heroines of Paradise: Love and Paradise: Faith as Melli, Teresa’s overweight and mobile phone-obsessed daughter, is driven to a diet camp in the mountains by temporary guardian Anna Marie. It resolves some questions raised in the first film, such as why does Teresa’s daughter never answer the phone? The answer, because she only has access to her mobile for one hour every day. And the rest of the time she spends in girl talk, exercise and visiting the sanatorium’s doctor. Falling in love, getting fit and with her whole life ahead of her, what’s not to be hopeful about?
Melli (Melanie Lenz) arrives at a fitness club for overweight teens in the Austrian mountains where she’s numbered, measured and weighed. The school runs a regime based on discipline, with walking, running and swimming all to the imperious command of the instructor’s whistle. Melli shares a dorm room with three other girls, and they talk about boys, parents and sex, hold parties in their room and sneak into the school’s kitchens by stealth of night. Melli though, following a bout of stomach cramps, starts to feel the pinch from all the exercise and takes to visiting the institute’s doctor, flirting with him until she falls in love. The affair is doomed, but as Melli succumbs to the throes of her first love, she encounters both its ups and downs.
We had a glimpse of Seidl’s authoritarian streak in Paradise: Love with its strict rows of sunloungers and its beach starkly segregated by a cordon, but there’s an additional element to his fixed camera sequences in Paradise: Hope. No longer content with simply arranging people in humorously uniform lines, in this the final part of Seidl’s trilogy, the whistle punctuations of the fitness instructor provide the perfect excuse for adding ludicrous movements to his wryly distanced tableaux. There’s a procession of squat thrusts, star jumps and forward rolls, and the rotund teenagers run round in circles like Lipizzaner, bowed to the will of Seidl’s spectacle, culminating in a hilariously self-deprecating rendition of “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your fat!” Discipline, for Seidl, like for the diet camp’s instructors who teach their gorged pupils to overcome gluttony and learn to savour one square of chocolate, offers a very different type of cinema to Hollywood excess, piecing together a rigorous regime out of small, delicious segments.
Like Melli’s mother’s Kenyan expedition, Paradise: Hope is the tale of a woman defining her sexuality; in this case a 16-year-old discovering it for the first time, both emotionally and physically, and exploring it with her peers. It’s an undefined period of experimentation and furtive action, as two boys make out during a game of spin the bottle, or as Melli’s tentative flirtations with the doctor evolve and are reciprocated; she examines him with a stethoscope, he later lurks outside her room. The girls are unwittingly vulnerable to men, sneaking out to a local bar and drinking themselves into paralysis, but their sexual curiosity allows an openness which meets the fetishes of an older generation halfway – epitomised in a breathtaking scene in which Melli is lain down on the forest floor to be sniffed over by the doctor.
Youth, apparently, is open-minded but confused and learning to take part in adult games of manipulation – one classmate uses her precious mobile phone hour to calm her mother with exhortations of how wonderful the camp is, while moaning to her father about how unhappy she is there. Even Melli, who is on a more even keel emotionally than most, has to swallow her tears as she leaves a message on her mum’s answer phone after breaking up with the doctor. But with the anxious sexuality of youth under the telescope, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Hope offers a kind of hope to Melli that this first love might be just an amuse-bouche to life’s main course. And just as we never see the dieters eat until the final sequence, forking their carefully portioned meals patrolled by circling instructors, there’s a feeling that there might be more to this discipline than just the humorous antics of a mischievous filmmaker, an open road to self-fulfilment that offers the promise of a better life – of love, faith and hope.
Paradise Hope is released on 2nd August 2013 in the UK