Paradise: Hope

The last movie in Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, Paradise: Hope, has, at its centre, the relationship of a teenage girl with a doctor. She is about 17, he must be at the far end of forty. The girl is Melanie, and she is the daughter of Teresa from the first movie. Melanie is curious about her effect on boys; her bunkmate’s tales about blowjobs and shaved vaginas not only educate her, but seem to make her eager to go out and explore on her own.

Melanie is pretty. She is also overweight. The movie takes place at a camp for overweight teenagers. One of the saddest scenes I’ve seen lately is the one where the teenagers stand in line in the courtyard and have to sing: “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your fat.”

Melanie is aware of the camp’s doctor. He is a bit of a joker, not bad-looking, but far too chummy with Melanie. She fakes mysterious stomach aches in order to see him. There might also be moments where he engineers their encounters in the camp’s changing rooms. That guy is trouble of the creepy kind.

The camp is full of teenagers trapped in a loveless environment, dumped there by their parents. They sneak food, fags and booze into the camp. They get caught, and Melanie is mortified because the doctor tells her off like an unruly child.

There is an away day at a lakeshore. Melanie wanders off into the nearby woods, maybe hoping for the doctor to follow her. He does so. It’s a very uncomfortable scene, because Melanie is looking after company, a kind word, a connection, some appreciation. The doctor might hope for more. He follows her to a clearing, and she approaches him. Then she hugs him, which seems to come as a surprise to him. After some hesitation, he hugs her back. That must be enough. This time.

Later, he sneaks into her room and goes through her things. He lies in her bed, then leaves before she comes back. The same evening, she waits by his car until he appears. He tells her off – not because they are off limits to each other, but because he could be seen talking to her.

Melanie and her bunkmate escape to a local bar where they get picked up by two horny teenage boys. They slip something in her drink, and her friend takes off because Melanie gets all the attention. They feel her up while she tries to dance under the effect of the drug. Then she collapses and is saved by the barkeeper. This time.

The barkeeper calls the doctor to pick up the unconscious girl; he must have seen this kind of thing before. The doctor appears, and one danger of abuse is replaced by another. He drives into the woods and stays there with an unconscious Melanie until morning. He lays her down gently in a mossy clearing, lies down beside her and starts sniffing her. This time.

He brings her back to the camp and tells her that they cannot have any more contact. High time for that, but get this: He severs ties not because she is infatuated with him, but because he is afraid that he cannot handle her infatuation much longer.

I struggled a bit with the movie, because there seemed to be little hope: Does Melanie really still hope for good friends and acceptable partners? Maybe, but that would be against the odds. On the other hand, it must be an excellent kind of hope, with such a long shot.

One thing that still bugs me: In all three films, the women are somehow exploited by men, and they barely recover. Maybe it’s one of the formal points Seidl makes; maybe it’s also his way of finding out how his characters fare under pressure. But the coincidence haunts me, and it is only partly solved by the fact that he made all three protagonists women. There seemed to be so little joy in any of their lives. Teresa is still in Kenia at the end of the movie. Anna is whipping her savior, and Melanie is still at fat camp, having no clue how close she was to being raped. Neither of the three women has escaped their trap, but did anyone really think they would?

Or maybe Melanie is hard-wired like her mother and her aunt. They do what they must, and joy or relief doesn’t really have anything to do with it. Like Teresa, who will go on looking for love in dubious places. Maybe the paradise of the title is the one time where you really find what you are looking for. Like Anna, who might come to some kind of truce with her religion, which demands everything of her, whether she gives gladly or no. For Melanie, hope is the one red line going through her life. At least that. Living without it must be hell. There is no sure way to reach paradise, and most of us won’t reach it, but the movies seem to suggest that we must at least try, or we will fail miserably. It could be possible that some kind of truce is the best we get. Maybe hell isn’t other people; maybe hell is you, but it’s not your fault. It’s just the way you are.

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