Berlinale 2013 Review: Ulrich Seidl's PARADISE: HOPE Is A Surprisingly Comic Diet Camp Love Story

Brian Clark, European Editor
Ulrich Seidl's third part of his controversial "Paradise" trilogy, as expected, breaks taboos and offers plenty of squirm-inducing depictions of raw, socially unacceptable emotions... but oddly, it's also a really silly movie. In fact, most of the film, set in a diet camp for overweight kids, feels like an out-and-out comedy, as if Heavyweights was remade by an divisive Austrian provocateur with a fondness for long static shots. One scene where all of the camp kids stand in a row singing,  "If you're happy and you know it, clap your fat!" seems like it actually could have been in the Judd Apatow-scripted fat camp comedy. It's a bit of a surprise after Seidl's much more confrontational and devastating Paradise: Love, but in the end, not a totally unwelcome one.

The film mostly concerns a thirteen year old girl, Melanie, who was introduced at the beginning of Paradise: Love, right before her mother left on an ill-fated vacation to the sex-tourism industry of Kenya. During her mothers getaway, Melanie is sent to a diet camp for overweight adolescents, where she falls deeply in love with the camp doctor thirty years her senior. Her crush seems a bit funny at first, but, as anyone who remembers being thirteen can attest, first-love is no laughing matter. It is intense, desperate and very, very serious. Especially for an insecure, overweight girl.

The doctor -- and here's the squirm-inducing aspect -- seems very ambivalent about her feelings for much of the film, and at times even seems to encourage them. which of course, makes everything much worse.

But as usual, Seidl is just as interested in the setting and the strange people that inhabit it as he is the narrative. He breaks apart the scenes between Melanie and the Doctor with static, deadpan shots of the militant camp counselor walking the kids back and forth in a line, lecturing them about discipline ("I cannot lose this weight for you!") and subjecting them to torturous punishment for making noise after quiet time. Seidl also finds plenty of time to show Melanie and her roommates talking graphically about sex, playing spin the bottle and, in perhaps the best sustained sequence of the film, getting dolled up and sneaking out to go to a dreary dance club.

The film never drags, although, Seidl's observational humor about the camp's policies, and even its existence, never really goes deeper than deadpan sight gags. It all amounts to a fairly whispy, accessible movie, at least, much more so than most of Seidl's other work, including the previous films in this trilogy. It's also a more overtly tender film, one which will hopefully silence some critics who argue that Seidl mocks his characters and shows nothing but their ugly side. While the romance with the doctor could have gone to some very uncomfortable places, it instead takes on a touching, tragic dimension, and reminds audiences of the intensity and impossibility of young love. It's actually not so far off from Moonrise Kingdom in terms of the emotions it evokes.

I certainly won't remember Paradise: Hope as long I will Love, or much of Seidl's other work, and at times, I wished he could have found more to do with the setting than the obvious fat camp jokes that persist through the movie. However, while the film feels slight, there are still moments of honest and surprising emotion that few working filmmakers can pull off. And hell, after the sleazy dirge of Paradise: Love and (from what I hear) Paradise: Faith, maybe a little laughter and humanity is exactly what was needed to wrap up the trilogy.
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