Ain’t No Miserablism Like Austrian Miserablism

07/22/2009 4:00 AM |

The Films of Ulrich Seidl
Anthology Film Archives, July 24-August 6

Depending on your standards, Ulrich Seidl is either in the best or worst of company, having been compared to Werner Herzog, Diane Arbus, and fellow Austrian and contemporary Michael Haneke in his desire to unsettle viewers by filming straight-ahead confrontations with the grimmest and grimiest of bizarre human specimens. His m.o. invites the usual questions of exploitation and sensationalism, but even if one harbors reservations (I don’t) Seidl has increasingly complicated his provocative gawking while slowly transitioning from documentary to narrative, incorporating a genuinely rich understanding of moral and spiritual hardship into his purgatorial worldview.

Seidl began making short documentaries in 1980; Anthology Film Archives’ retro begins with 1992 feature doc Losses Are to Be Expected; unfortunately, the earliest film available for review (television movies Pictures of an Exhibition and The Bosom Friend, like Losses, have not been distributed in any form in the U.S.) is the disturbingly representative Animal Love (1995), a series of grotesque tableaux of sordid and more than slightly touched pet owners who use their domesticated beasts as substitutes for friends, children and romantic partners. Seidl frames them in long unbroken static shots (and never, as in all his films, relies on extra-diegetic sound) that accentuate their weirdness; a parallel-edited scene of estranged lovers attempting to win the affections of a confused pug as if it were a child caught in the middle of a custody battle, or a simple but effective cut from a couple overzealously playing with their mutt to the same animal chained up and muzzled, exemplify the material in which Seidl specializes: the most superficial of happy exteriors masking profound perversity, loneliness, or flat-out cruelty.

This means that the statuesque women of Models (1999) only exacerbate the gap between pretty façade and rotten interior, but what distinguishes it from every other romp through the image industry (drugs, eating disorders, pathological emptiness) is the director’s eye for perfect visual evocations of his subjects’ feelings. Captured in the most intimate situations, Models‘ models don’t mind the ubiquitous camera; thus rendered invisible, Seidl indulges in stylized compositions that isolate physical and gestural oddities, including a startling opening shot of a girl desperately repeating “I love you” to a mirror that blocks out and replaces her face — an appropriate metaphor, since throughout the rest of the film the camera voyeuristically hides behind mirrors or else acts as one. If any véritist deserves credit for having “written” his work, it’s Seidl.