Above: Maria (Maria Hofstätter) in Paradise: Faith.
Think of the silent film star Pearl White, decamped and tuned up in a boxy frame lit through the middle, giggling or screaming or whispering her perils against a few dozen uncomprehending faces. Split into three, she becomes, in Ulrich Seidl’s vision of her, a botched vigilante of her own wayward desires, long unregulated and frayed, whether by age (Teresa, the giggler on holiday in Paradise: Love), chastity (Anna Maria, the gnarled scream of Paradise: Faith), or by size (the impressionable and adolescent Melanie, the whisperer of Paradise: Hope). Seidl’s three films are really one continuous achievement in the art of corporeal crisis management; taken together, they make a fleshy, nested triumvirate with impeccable feline intuition.
The middle-aged Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) of Love moves and talks like an Austrian Brigitte Mira, bashful in a teal swimsuit at a Kenyan seaside resort stocked with lithe, obliging young men peddling tawdry accessories (and their bodies) to any unsuspecting woman of fifty. Teresa has left her thirteen-year-old daughter, Melanie (Melanie Lenz), with the girl’s apoplectic aunt, Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter), a self-flagellating Catholic zealot with an estranged Muslim husband disabled physically, but certainly not sexually, from the waist down. Aside from a few unanswered cell phone calls and voicemail messages, these women have very little to do with one another across Seidl’s three films, and the camera—sometimes handheld, usually locked in sturdy wide shots that are perforated dead center by a hot white rectangle of a window—patrols their travels with a long, undistracted gape. When Anna Maria uses a bedroom crucifix to play out an onanistic nocturnal fantasy, we watch a slithering, supine hoard of sheets and limbs at the base of a wall of paisleys. (Seidl joins Fassbinder, Pialat, and Billy Wilder as one of cinema’s discerning chroniclers of wallpaper.) A plump picaro of kitchens and living rooms, Anna Maria can repulse an interior with the single stroke of a rebuke. Statue of the Virgin in hand, or upright at her musical keyboard, hers is a chastising negative forcefulness; one has the sense that every wall and window can only either fall away or explode under the punishing thrust of her personality. In Hope, the third film and Seidl’s most recent, Melanie’s face is either an undistinguished formal feature in a crowded room or the only body to be found; usually, she slouches against the backs of chairs, or lies sprawled in bed with her roommates, perhaps the only genuine recurring instance of intimacy in the otherwise depersonalizing health camp she’s been sent off to for the summer.
Like her mother, the oafish Melanie’s expectations are, soon enough, defeated—in Hope, there are the crisp silver slacks and partially unbuttoned shirts of the aquiline camp physician (Joseph Lorenz), as old as her mother, who perversely seems to solicit, and then curiously rebuff, the poor girl’s affections. Faith ends where it began, abjectly, and without the same newfound note of ambivalent self-awareness that nonetheless survives the thwarted romantic fantasies of mother and daughter alike in Love and Hope. This may explain the poor reaction to the film by many critics in this country. Anna Maria makes for too fussy, too exhausting, too inhospitable a film; but the achievement and the point of a work like Seidl’s is that it doesn’t need epiphanies. What matters is the force of a character’s reflexes in the face of hurled geometry, like the best of slapstick. The fractured heroes of Mack Sennett and Hal Roach could escape the ground sweep of an invisible fist with admirable athleticism. Seidl’s heroines are less prepared, and less gifted; his is a world of emotional feats expressed in the widest possible angle, a wall-to-wall vision of ineluctably large gaps between people and things that cannot be remedied by a few resistant limbs alone (witness, again, Anna Maria’s paraplegic husband). Whatever the cause—Austrian society, aging, a stammering romantic life—Seidl’s invisible fist will punch, and punch gently. The humor of these films is always in the service of preserving a dense system of sharp verticals and horizontals, and it does this as an affront to its trio of emotional upstarts.
Last summer, Seidl said in an interview, “Desire and happiness are quite different. What interests me is showing people who are attempting to fulfill their desire to escape the trap of their isolation. I’m not so much interested in the individual fate or destiny of my characters.” A collective destiny may be in store, an unfulfilled and unfulfilling paradise on the lowest rung. The opening giggle of Seidl’s trilogy—Teresa’s own summertime scarlet letter—makes for a lapsed vision of love; the splintered logic of the route from Love’s laughter to a screaming Faith means ending with the tiresome, breathless Hope for a paradise that may not exist at all. In Seidl’s sometimes beautiful, beguiling hall of walls and windows—not a mirror in sight—one hopes with whispers.