Now online: Ulrich Seidl's portrait of perversion The Bosom Friend

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Rene Rupnik, the bosom friend
  • Rene Rupnik, the bosom friend
Last month the second and third parts of Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise" trilogy screened at the European Union Film Festival; I hope they return sooner rather than later. The trilogy seems to me Seidl's most accomplished work to date, continuing the Austrian filmmaker's mission to confront social taboos while consistently displaying an affection towards his subjects that had emerged only fitfully in his earlier films. The latent compassion of a film like Animal Love, Seidl's documentary about social outcasts whose closest relationships are with their pets, has finally blossomed, and it's a beautiful thing to behold.

Formally, a key difference between the "Paradise" films and most of Seidl's earlier features is that they don't rely on crosscutting. Previously the director would advance a single theme by alternating between several characters and story lines. It was a clever way to bring a sense of dramatic development to mostly static images, but it could also come off as flip. As soon as a character's plight seemed too pathetic to watch (I think of the flabby, middle-aged masochist in Dog Days), Seidl would cut to something else. At his worst moments, he seemed to be challenging the viewer's empathy so that he could pull back and say, "Just kidding."

The "Paradise" films avoid this exit strategy—each one sticks to a single protagonist and refuses to abandon her no matter how humiliating her behavior. This isn't unprecedented in Seidl's work, however: his 1997 documentary The Bosom Friend, made for Austrian TV, focused on one subject to moving effect. It's currently viewable on YouTube in a decent-enough transfer; you can watch it here.

That subject, Rene Rupnik, is a lonely, sex-obsessed, and possibly virginal high school math teacher who lives with his mother in a cluttered apartment. Rupnik has spent his life fantasizing about women, ranking them according to preference and considering their anatomy with scientific rigor. Seidl first invites us to view his obsession comically, introducing Rupnik in front of a chalkboard illustration of a bosom-like parabola. But as the man defends himself throughout the film's hour-long run time, he seems sadder and sadder. Rupnik is a man trapped within his perversions, which he seems to have embraced as a justification for his loneliness. The Bosom Friend climaxes with Rupnik telling a long story about stalking the Austrian actress Senta Berger (if his story is to be believed, she was rather a good sport about it). By this point, Seidl has established such intimacy with the subject that we recognize the episode, albeit ironically, as a personal triumph. At least this creepy obsession afforded him some moments of human interaction.

Ulrich Seidl, at the 2013 Austrian Film Awards
  • Manfred Werner/Wikimedia Commons
  • Ulrich Seidl, at the 2013 Austrian Film Awards
No one could accuse Seidl of exploitation here. Rupnik is obviously in control of his on-screen persona, and Seidl's highly organized frames suggest he's never catching the subject unawares. In any case, Rupnik turns in a cameo in Paradise: Faith, so clearly he didn't hold a grudge against the filmmaker. (The scene in question plays like a little addendum to Bosom Friend, which makes me hope it'll be included as a special feature in the inevitable "Paradise" DVD box set.) In a recent interview for Austrian TV, the generally amiable Seidl took offense only when the host likened his movies to comic strips. "I want to show real people who are just like you and me," he said. Bosom Friend, like Seidl's most recent accomplishments, finds the universal qualities in a person most of us would instinctively ignore.

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