Austrian director Ulrich Seidl makes a habit of blurring boundaries: his documentaries include staged scenes, and his dramas feature nonprofessional actors who are sometimes playing versions of themselves. But there is little middle ground when it comes to the reception of his work.
Writing in Artforum last year, John Waters declared: "Fassbinder died, so God gave us Ulrich Seidl." Werner Herzog once said of Seidl's "Animal Love," a 1996 documentary about excessively devoted pet owners: "Never have I looked so directly into hell." (He meant it as a compliment.) But accusations of cruelty and misanthropy are also legion. Seidl's own website proudly displays a scroll of epithets that have been hurled at him, including "voyeur," "social pornographer" and "blackguard."
For such a divisive figure, Seidl has had unusually prominent platforms for his most recent work, the "Paradise" trilogy, with one new film at each of the three major European festivals.
"Paradise: Love," which opens in Los Angeles this week, had its premiere in competition at Cannes last May. "Faith" was screened in Venice, where it won a jury prize and drew charges of blasphemy and the threat of a lawsuit from a Catholic organization. The final installment, "Hope," was shown in Berlin, where Seidl also presented an exhibition of still images from the trilogy.
In an interview at Cannes, Seidl, speaking in German through a translator, said that the original plan was to make one episodic film about three women, each on a journey of her own.
The mother, Teresa, visits a seaside resort in Kenya, where young local men known as beach boys sell trinkets — and themselves — to female Western pleasure-seekers. Her sister, Maria, a devout Catholic, takes time off work to devote herself to door-to-door proselytizing, only to be interrupted by the return of her estranged husband, a wheelchair-bound Egyptian Muslim. Teresa's daughter, Melanie, is shipped off to a fitness camp for overweight teenagers, where she develops a crush on a middle-aged doctor.
"All three women are in search of their personal paradise," Seidl said. Wrestling with 90 hours of footage, he ended up with a six-hour film. Attempts to condense or intercut the stories weakened individual scenes, so he persuaded his investors to allow him to make three films, each one named for a Christian virtue.
The title of the trilogy can be taken in what Seidl called the "biblical sense" — paradise as "the original state of constant happiness," as he put it. Stefan Grissemann, an Austrian critic, wrote a book on Seidl titled "Sündenfall," which translates as "Original Sin." The concept of sin, Grissemann said in an email, relates to Seidl's established role as a taboo-breaker with "an explicit way of dealing with religion and, for that matter, public morality."(Among Seidl's documentaries is a portrait of Catholics at prayer, "Jesus, You Know.")
Austrian cinema has no shortage of provocateurs, starting with the newly Oscar-sanctioned Michael Haneke, but Seidl's confrontational streak is especially pronounced, evident in almost every frame. His movies favor head-on, tableau-like compositions, a static style that Seidl, 60, said dates to his first short from film school in the 1980s. (The "Paradise" trilogy was shot by Wolfgang Thaler, a longtime collaborator, and the veteran American cinematographer Ed Lachman.)
The outward poise of the films stands in stark contrast to the extravagantly messy behavior on view in them. As severe and controlled as they appear, their defining quality may in fact be their volatility. Fiction and documentary commingle in unpredictable ways, as stories and actors are exposed to real people and places.
"I don't distinguish between actors and nonactors," Seidl said. Professional or otherwise, none of his performers ever sees a script. Scenes emerge through a long process of rehearsal and improvisation, and he shoots chronologically, which allows him and his wife and writing partner, Veronika Franz, to revise the screenplay as they go.
In his 2007 fiction film "Import/Export," Seidl ventured into a geriatric ward, where he filmed patients on the verge of death. In "Love" he cast actual beach boys, which meant that the queasy on-screen transactions between the visitors and the locals played out behind the scenes as well. "It was a kind of blackmail," Seidl said. "After we'd been shooting for two weeks they stopped and said if they didn't receive twice as much as promised they would pull out."
"Paradise" touches on many of the obsessions that have run through Seidl's three-decade career: religion, lust, beauty ideals, the war of the sexes. "All the relationships between men and women in these films are very unequal," Seidl said of the three heroines in "Paradise," each trapped in a doomed coupling across a racial, religious or age divide.
Seidl has not exactly mellowed with age, but at least in Austria, Grissemann said, the criticisms have softened with his growing international acclaim, as has happened with other iconoclasts such as Haneke and the novelists Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek.
Seidl's next project is a documentary about "the relationship that men have with their basements," he said recently in Berlin. While visiting Austrian homes as research for "Dog Days" (2001), an ensemble movie set in a Viennese suburb, he realized that "very often the basement is far more lavishly outfitted than the living space above ground."
While Seidl's documentary will not deal with the sensational recent news stories of Austrian home dungeons where young girls were held captive for years, he said he expects viewers to watch it with those real-life cases in mind.
"My experience is that men retreat to their basements when they want to be the way they are," he said.
Which naturally raises the question: What might we find in his basement?
Seidl responded with a smile: "I have a very nice old wine cellar."