Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Hope, the third and final film in a series that includes Paradise: Love and Paradise: Faith, navigates a narrow space between tenderness and cruelty. Following an overweight teenager, Melanie (Melanie Lenz), as she struggles with her burgeoning sexual identity while toiling away at an oppressive diet camp, the film frequently threatens to collapse into psychosexual shock tactics (the reigning cliché of contemporary Austrian cinema). But Seidl has found a protagonist who beautifully offsets his more forbidding aesthetic tendencies, and as a result, Paradise: Hope thrives on empathy and unease, not cruelty. Its detailed understanding and even affection for its central character makes for an involving experience in which nothing moves quite in the direction you expect it to, your own emotions least of all.
Which isn’t to say that Paradise: Hope actually brims with much hope. It shares with Paradise: Love and Paradise: Faith a pessimistic condescension to its titular theme; this is ultimately more a critique of hope than an ode to it, as evidenced by the series’s forbidding visual style. Edward Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler’s static, eerily symmetrical cinematography is beautiful but dispassionate, making characters seem like specimens trapped within the frame. This geometric rigidity extends to the film’s setting as well, with the camp set up in a pristine and labyrinthine estate, complete with creepy expressionist frescoes and creepily well-manicured gardens, that brings to mind the manses lying at the dark heart of The Shining and Last Year at Marienbad.
One of Paradise: Hope’s most impressive achievements is the careful and clever way the camp as an institution is presented, edging back and forth between the mundane and the sadistic to sustain a wonderfully creepy mood. The instructors don’t seem malevolent, just mean, and the grueling exercise routines, though nightmarish, don’t dampen the campers’ spirits; harsh rules about contraband and telephone usage are enforced, but never with lasting punishment or physical violence. The most significant, and certainly creepiest, development at the camp is Melanie’s relationship with the doctor in residence (Joseph Lorenz), a tall, lean man in his 50s whose advances are all the more unsettling because they’re so subtle: a still and silent semi-nude encounter in the pool’s changing room, and an impromptu office visit that turns into a not-quite-naughty game of doctor. The audience never questions what they’re watching (a pedophile taking advantage of a young, insecure girl), but they’re forced to question what to make of it.
But more notable than the film’s eerie aesthetic and careful construction of tension is the lively camaraderie among Melanie and her fellow overweight campers, particularly her older and more sexually experienced roommate, Verena (Verena Lehbauer). Scenes such as Verena gently encouraging Melanie to act on her sexual impulses, or eight campers gleefully playing spin the bottle in a cramped dorm room, inject the proceedings with a certain warmth and spontaneity, even humanism. And the rest of the film is complicated for the better by this: Many of the more chill and baroque passages would feel too overbearing on their own, but offset by this relaxed and youthful energy, they become stranger and trickier to pin down. Thus, while Melanie’s journey may not be a particularly happy one, it would be a disservice to call it inhumane: Even at its most punitive, Paradise: Hope is filled with portent. And even as it swells with dread, it sparks with possibility.