Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl’s stunning, confrontational Paradise trilogy, which centers on three women in search of both loving tenderness and primal sexual validation, is finally getting a stateside release. So what can we expect? In Paradise: Love, a flabby, fiftysomething Austrian “sugar mama” travels to Kenya to pick up eager young African boy-toys; Paradise: Faith’s repressed Jesus fanatic loses it when confronted by her hot-headed, alcoholic Muslim ex-husband; and the chubby, pretty teen in Paradise: Hope parses her confusing relationship with the gentle yet lecherous doctor at diet camp. It’s intense stuff, but Seidl’s mesmerizing geometric compositions interspersed with handheld sequences featuring a loose, improvised momentum—not to mention the performances he wrangles from his professional and nonprofessional actors—keeps it from feeling too heavy-handed. We spoke with him for some insight.
Besides being about three related women—an aunt, a mother, and a daughter—who are all longing for similar things, what are the connecting themes among the films?
The idea of the relationship to one’s body, this consciousness of one’s body. In Love, you have Teresa, an overweight older woman who feels that because of her appearance she’s unable to find, in the West at least, the kind of man she’s looking for. She feels she needs to go to Africa, to a place where appearance is irrelevant—where despite her appearance, she’s still desirable. In Faith, Anna Maria uses her body to expiate her sins, to experience lust through pain. And in Hope, Melanie is an overweight young girl who’s looking for love.
How did you cast the main roles?
Casting’s a very long process for me; building a mutual trust is very important. That was the case with Teresa, played by Margarete Tiesel; that was also the case for the Kenyan beach boys she lusted after. Over two years, I visited Kenya repeatedly to build that trust with them. Also, all of my films involve improvisation. I never wrote dialogue, so it’s important that the actors are capable of improvising on set. In my experience, there aren’t that many actors who, in fact, are capable of it, who are truly suited for the collaboration.
The Paradise trilogy tackles pedophilia and class, race, and body issues, and features some pretty intense sexual sequences—not to mention a scene in which a woman pleasures herself with a crucifix. Was everyone on board, or did you have to convince anyone?
The actors who want to work with me are able to see my previous films. They know what my work is about. They just have to ask themselves whether they want to be involved. I can always tell if someone is really appropriate for the role, if they really understand my intuitions, if they’re able to open themselves. Tiesel, for example, knew from the there’d be scenes where she would be naked in Paradise: Love, where she’d be intimate with black men, and she had to ask herself if she’d be able to do that, especially given her personal background—she’s married and has a family. It was probably the most challenging role of her entire career.
What about Melanie Lenz, who plays the 13-year-old girl in Paradise: Hope?
Just like with the role of the sugar mama in Paradise: Love, there were many girls I was considering for the lead in Paradise: Hope. We visited summer diet camps all around Austria, met with girls, talked about their diet camp experiences, their family backgrounds. Up until we began filming, I was considering two girls for the lead: Melanie Lenz and Verena Lehbauer, the dark-haired girl who plays her best friend. In the end I chose Melanie because she looks more innocent. When we started filming, she hadn’t yet had sexual relations; Verena already had.
Was it difficult to shoot the scenes between Melanie and Joseph Lorenz, who plays the camp doctor? How did you make them comfortable with each other?
I wasn’t sure what would come of the interaction between the two; I didn’t know what the chemistry would be, what emotions would develop. Very quickly I saw that scenes involving a lot of dialogue didn’t work, so I chose to concentrate on longer scenes without dialogue. What was odd was that there was no contact between Melanie and Joseph beyond the set. Usually when you have two actors playing extensively together, particularly with intimate scenes, they seek each other out and spend a lot of time together away from the set as well. But no closeness developed beyond the set. Just the opposite. Melanie would go off on her own; she actually fell in love with one of the young boy actors during the shoot.
Did she and Verena know each other beforehand?
No. Prior to the shoot I’d bring all the boys and girls to prepare together, and it was during that period that they became friends. What was interesting for my work was that parallel to our shooting in a fictional diet camp, we set up a real diet camp for the kids to attend together. It really allowed them to grow together. The scenes in which you see this natural sense of trust—like the spin-the-bottle scene—that’s the result of the group spirit that developed.
So you’d just say to them, “Play spin the bottle and see what happens?” Or, “Talk to each other about how beautiful the camp doctor’s eyes are?” Those scenes were so compelling and natural.
Yes. For that scene, I told Melanie that I wanted her to talk about her first kiss, to touch upon about her notions of sex. That was the only precondition.
You wrote the films with your wife, Veronika Franz. What was the dynamic between the two of you as collaborators? Was it important to have her perspective when developing the characters?
When we collaborate, we don’t sit down and actually “write” together. Rather, I’ll write out the ideas and scenes, send them to her, and she’ll either give me her comments or rewrite the scenes and send them back to me. It’s very helpful, of course, that someone’s there giving you feedback, bouncing ideas back at you—and all the better if that other person is a woman who can give you her perspective.
Can you talk a bit about your compositions? Sometimes you work with a fixed, locked-down camera and very geometric compositions, and other times you go for a more loose approach.
It’s strange that these two approaches can co-exist in a single film: You can have very realistic moving shots, quasi-documentary, followed by artificial shots in which the people are very small elements in the composition. As a filmmaker, I have different means at my disposal for transposing the story into pictures. There’s the possibility of using various structured images, scenes that are very formally set up. And then there are other scenes that I shoot with a handheld camera. It depends what the scene requires. The striptease scene in Love, where one of the Austrian women brings a young Kenyan man to her friend as a birthday gift, involves a lot of movement; in that case, the handheld camera is the best approach.
But for some scenes, a tableaux, a more formal approach feels better. I like, for example, the scene on the beach in Love with the European women at the hotel lying on their chaise longues one side of the rope, the local beach boys on the other side of the rope, and the armed hotel security guards patrolling between them. You can capture the entire world in a single shot.
American audiences, I’ve noticed, are much more sensitive to depictions of racism than are European audiences. How do you feel these films will play in the U.S.?
I can’t tell you because I’m not familiar enough with American audiences—but I must say, even for European audiences, the film is very provocative and sensitive and really pushes the limit. Showing a woman acting in a racist manner, that’s a taboo. For some time, it hasn’t been taboo to depict men engaging in racism, but for women, it still is.
Do you ever think about how an audience will respond to your work while you’re filming?
I think it’s a quality of one’s work that you’re able to disturb the audience, to provoke them, to lead them into a sense of disquiet, make them question themselves and the values that they hold, and make them want to talk about what you’re showing. It leads to a different consciousness, a different awareness of the world. That’s my task, providing a different view of the world—not confirming what we already know.