The art of Austrian filmmaker Ulrich Seidl (Import Export) often feels closer to still photography than to cinema. He'll regularly stage an entire scene in a single, static shot, characters and objects arranged in a tableau. His manipulation of natural light is exquisite, conveying a natural beauty that transcends—or at least complicates—his taste for provocative content. (Seidl's most consistent subjects are antisocial behavior and sexual exploitation, and he's often been characterized as antihumanist.) He trades less in characterization than in portraiture, casting both professional and nonprofessional actors based on their physical qualities or personal backgrounds.
The purpose of his style, he's said, is to consider relationships between individuals and their environments, but sometimes his work favors the latter, cutting between multiple subplots in such a way that the characters register only as sketches. Seidl's "Paradise" trilogy—Paradise: Love (2012), Paradise: Faith (2012), and Paradise: Hope (2013)—which screens in its entirety at the Gene Siskel Film Center this Saturday, represents a breakthrough in his three-decade career. Each film sticks to a single story line, following a protagonist through moments of happiness and transgression, and by forgoing all the cross-cutting, Seidl fashions his most focused and complex portraits to date.
The films are rooted in sensitive subjects. Paradise: Love (screening daily) concerns a middle-aged schoolteacher experimenting with sex tourism in Kenya; Paradise: Faith (Sat 6/1, 5:15 PM) is about a dogmatic Catholic who exploits her religion to tyrannize everyone she encounters; and Paradise: Hope (Sat 6/1, 7:45 PM) depicts a weight-loss camp for junior high students where faculty establish a rigorous social order through public humiliation. These summaries might suggest cheap satire or hollow moralizing, but Seidl avoids both. His perspective here is curious, almost innocent—even the scenes of explicit sex feel unprejudiced.
The trilogy also represents a breakthrough for Seidl as a director of actors. The camera work may suggest a clinical observer, but the performances are strikingly casual. This contrast may be most impressive in Love, which inspires sympathy for both the Austrian women buying sex and the Kenyan men selling it. Seidl and cowriter Veronika Franz spent two years befriending the real-life "beach boys" who appear in the film, and Seidl seems to have collaborated with his Austrian actresses in much the same way; some of the most bracing scenes involve improvised dialogue in which the tourists, all middle-aged and overweight, speak openly (and with surprising good humor) about their sexual histories.
These conversations communicate naive desire as well as decadent lust, just as Seidl's ingenious compositions balance the natural beauty of Kenya with the garish order of the tourists' resort hotel. Paradise: Love neither condemns nor excuses sex tourism, arriving instead at the sort of complicated truths for which pictorial art is an ideal vehicle.