After the seeing the first two installments, it’s impossible to expect Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Hope, which is once again shot in symmetrical long takes by Wolfgang Thaler and Ed Bachman, to be anything less than brutal. This one follows Melanie (Melanie Lenz), the daughter of Love’s protagonist, as she makes friends and falls for her instructor at diet camp. It’s far from sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows for Melanie, and the incessant fear of pedophilia that Ulrich Seidl very carefully addresses provides an expectedly dark edge to the film, but as a whole, Hope is a pill far easier to follow than either Love or Faith. Not only does it refrain from uncomfortable images almost altogether, but the story itself is one of growth, not of retreat, which separates it from its predecessors.
As the film begins, we see Anna Maria (Faith’s protagonist) drop Melanie off at camp in a van that proudly advertises “Radio Maria” on the rear windshield. The tie-backs to the angry and declarative Faith end there, however, and what ensues harkens back to Love, as Melanie searches for love and tries to come to terms with her body-image and the role it plays. The bodies we see, often in attire that isn’t the most common or flattering (particularly compared to Hollywood) forces us to confront our own prejudices in a much easier way than, say, the opening or the orgy scene in Love. It’s far less complex than those scenes in Love, and thus also less profound, but the demands are also much easier to interpret here, and in this case, that’s a good thing. There is no question that the main subjects—the kids—are coming-of-age in an accepting environment, and the straightforward depiction of that environment asks viewers to be accepting of their physical differences. Seidl isn’t so much challenging us as politely making us aware of our own shortcomings.
(Side note: As an American, seeing what qualifies as “fat” in a country like Austria that isn’t plagued with an obesity epidemic is quite eye-opening. At the same time, if some of these kids are being called “fat,” there is something wrong)
As Melanie makes her adoration for Arzt (Joseph Lorenz) more and more obvious by going to his office every night for check-ups regarding stomach aches, blood pressure, and more, he becomes less and less sure what to do. Small things he does—let her try out the stethoscope, wait outside of a room for a couple minutes as kids party before busting them—become creepy and a bit inappropriate, although maybe he can’t be as sure of this as we are. When becomes consciously aware of what is going on, and, in one of the film’s better scenes, Melanie moves from her seat in an auditorium to sit closer to him and then next to him, only for him to respond by moving away again. Melanie is exhibiting newfound confidence in her appearance largely because of the self-esteem the other girls help her find; on the other hand, she’s taking her confidence to inappropriate extremes, extremes that remain appropriately ambiguous when it comes to the relationship (not) in making.
The kids talk forthrightly about sex and desires, and a smart in-joke about their parents’ “delayed adolescence” rings true when Melanie calls her mother, who never answers, and hopes her a good vacation in Kenya. If you have seen Love, more than just being funny, the phone call validates the remark about “delayed adolescence,” as Teresa is going through the same thing at that exact moment.