He is not bothered by the fact that people call his films ‘shocking’ and ‘extreme’, says Ulrich Seidl: ‘I am just trying to offer a realistic view of the world we live in.’ More importantly though, the Austrian director, who would have become a priest if his family had their way, prefers to think of love as one of the central motives in his body of work, which mainly comprises poignant and fiercely honest explorations of the incorrigibly odd side of society. Known for playing with narrative form by blending documentary style and drama in telling stories that oscillate between moments of raw (and frequently debauched) human behaviour and a dark, brutish sense of humour, it wasn’t until his 2001 film Dog Days (Hundstage) that Seidl found international acclaim, followed by his first appearance in competition at Cannes with Import Export in 2007. His latest project, which started off as an anthology film but ultimately turned into a trilogy called Paradise, revolves around three woman from the same family but with different quests and desires, namely sex, religion and true love.
In Love, which marks the first instalment of the triptych, Margarethe Tiesel stars as Teresa, a chubby single mother in her fifties, whose desperate search for love and affection turns increasingly wolfish when she steps out of her hotel room at a holiday resort in Kenya, where her friend has assured her that sex is plentiful. At first reluctant to go for one of the many underage beach boys on offer, she soon can’t help but give in to temptation. However, Seidl here slightly tones down the brutal rigidity of his earlier work as he moves into warmer territory, both climatically and emotionally.
The centrepiece, Faith, concerns Teresa’s sister Anna Maria (Maria Hofstä;tter), a fanatically devout Catholic, whose paradise lies with Jesus. She spends her vacation doing missionary work, taking a statue of the Virgin Mary from door to door around the countryside, in the hope of leading Austria back to the path of virtue. The tone is that of an uncompromising and mordant black comedy, which plunges into even darker tones from the moment Anna Maria is reunited with her Muslim husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh), an Egyptian confined to a wheelchair, who comes home after years away to demand his rights.
The final act, Hope, revolves around Meli (Melanie Lenz), Teresa’s 13-year-old daughter, who she drops of at a diet camp before heading to Kenya. But instead of trimming and toning, Meli can’t help but fall in love with her handsome doctor (Joseph Lorenz), who seems strangely attracted by the girl but, aware of the consequences, tries to keep his hands off. Meli, for her part, with her mother away buying love for money and her aunt busy praying, relies solely on her ebullient roommates to read the signs and follow her heart.
Pamela Jahn talked to Ulrich Seidl at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2013, where Paradise: Hope premiered in competition.
Pamela Jahn: What was the driving force in your venture to make three films relating to ‘paradise’?
Ulrich Seidl: We have a notion of paradise as the place of desire per se, and my intention was to make a film about three women and their particular longing, but ultimately with the aim of reaching paradise, in other words: reach love, affection, sexuality, attention, comfort. Very roughly speaking, that’s what the films are about.
How much irony is there?
None. It’s meant very seriously. But added to this is the fact that ‘paradise’ is a term that is used very often in the tourist industry, which is why it was so suitable for the first part of the trilogy. In travel magazines, every place is called paradise, and in every holiday resort there is a bar on the beach called Paradise too. But then, in the second film, paradise is meant in a religious way, while in the third part it becomes a place of desire again.
How did you choose the running order of the films?
We decided the running order after a very long process and time spent at the cutting table. I’ve been working on the films for about two years. First, it was meant to be just one film that would link the three different stories together, but once we started shooting, it became clear that it would be too complex to do that in terms of the emotionality of watching and following the three different stories at once. Then I started thinking about splitting them, first into two films, then three films, and once we had decided that it would be a trilogy, we had to determine the running order. For a long time, I thought I would start with the story about the mother, but followed by the story of the daughter. In the end, I changed my mind and put that last.
As in saying, ‘hope dies last’?
Not really. It hasn’t got anything to do with the title, it was mainly because there was a dramaturgic element to it. All three women are somewhat caught in a prison: a hotel resort for the mother, a house in Lower Austria for the sister, or a diet camp for the daughter in the final act. Each place has its own universe surrounding it, with its own images and its own style, but putting the story of the mother at the beginning and that of the daughter at the end provided a sort of framework for it.
What exactly does ‘paradise’ mean for Teresa in the first film?
She is woman who has been disappointed by men in the past. She’s a single mother at an age when she can’t easily find the man of her dreams, because she feels like she is no longer as attractive as she used to be. So she is looking to satisfy her desires, she is looking for the promises that the word ‘paradise’ contains. She is going to Africa to find her luck, to find happiness, which is a total paradox given the highly charged social, cultural and political environment there.
In a way she knows that she is looking in the wrong place from the start.
Maybe, but she can’t help it. It may sound trite, but all my films are somewhat mirrors of our society. As a filmmaker, I am always interested in outsiders, misfits, because my whole youth was pretty much contingent on that. Therefore my films are concerned with what people call the essential things in life: love, sexuality, beauty, loneliness, mortality, death, power relations. And of course the fact that Teresa is suffering because she doesn’t match today’s thin-ideal standard of beauty is part of this. In Africa she feels accepted, because women of her stature are seen as beautiful, regardless of their age. And the question is, why? And in a way this also shines light on our society and the way we look at things. In the second film, there is a similar thread in terms of the conflict between Muslim and Christian worldviews. So, there are always different layers to each of the three films.
Men usually are given a hard time in your films. What is it that interests you so much in the female perspective?
I wouldn‘t necessarily say that about the men in my films, but it’s true that I find women more interesting than men. Why? I don’t know, but in general I think I have more sympathy for women when it comes to all those gender conflicts that my films are concerned with. And in this case it was a conscious decision I made to tell three stories about three different women, but I have also just finished a play which had only men in the cast, so it really depends on the project I am working on. Regarding the men in the trilogy, I have to say that male audiences don’t really like the films, maybe because they feel offended, because they have to ask themselves: Why do these women have to sleep with beach boys? Or, if you look at the third episode, it’s essentially a Lolita story, told from the perspective of the girl. But in the end, the man is stuck in a dilemma about whether or not he should give in to his feelings for Meli. And in the second part, the Muslim man feels ambivalent and somewhat trapped, because in the Western world he can have every woman he wants, which is different to where he comes from. But at the same time, he’s disgusted about it and thinks all these women are whores. This kind of inner conflict in Muslim men is something I have come across very often and which I find very interesting.
Is it the breaking of taboos that fascinates you in a way?
No, at least that’s not my aim. I am not making films to simply provoke people or anything, but sometimes the truth, reality as such, provokes a scandal, which is good. In my films, I only try to guide people to look at things that are ‘normal’, things that people sometimes don’t dare to look at, although, or because, they are presumably ‘normal’. To me, art means pointing people and audiences to something that helps them think about themselves or the world we live in. And every single one of us has a handicap, nobody is perfect! Every person has a deficiency in one way or another. So in a way, this is about all of us.
Interview by Pamela Jahn