Published Sep 13, 2015Over a decade ago, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Paul Thomas Anderson popularized the multi-narrative format, making movies like Amores Perros and Magnolia, respectively, much to the delight of critics and audiences internationally. In addition to lending themes about interconnectedness and globalism, they found a poetry and beauty in human tragedy, blending stories from different class systems and cultures in a rather powerful ode to the ideas that we are not alone and that our actions have repercussions that we may not even see.
Several copycats in America attempted this format — one even managing to snag a Best Picture Oscar for an utterly dreadful attempt — but (arguably) no one managed to replicate the spirit of Iñárritu or Anderson's works. Now, a decade-and-a-half later, Dutch director Joost van Ginkel has crafted his ode to the template with the troubling immigration drama, The Paradise Suite. It's an ironic title, referencing the hotel room in which a sex trafficking victim is to satisfy a client against her will.
Said victim is Jenya (Anjela Nedyalkova), a Bulgarian teenager brought to Amsterdam under the guise of a modelling contract. Once there, she encounters Ivica (Boris Isakovic), a father and ex-Serbian war criminal running a sex club and underground prostitution ring in the Netherlands. While she's repeatedly raped and beaten, Seka (Jasna Djuricic), a Bosnian woman directed affected by Ivica's crimes, pursues the man legally while casually stalking him. Also connected to these stories is the plight of an illegal migrant worker, Yaya (Isaka Sawadogo), who reluctantly gets wrapped up in the sex club underworld, and Lukas (Erik Adelöw), a budding Swedish piano virtuoso driven to bedwetting and spontaneous urination by his overbearing, perfectionist conductor father, Stig (Magnus Krepper).
Often, when directors attempt to blend several stories into a single narrative, sharing a tone, style and thematic trajectory, it can be quite messy — certain stories fall flat (think of the Julianne Moore storyline in Magnolia) or a sidebar story is saddled with a tone that doesn't suit it. It comes with the territory of handling such an epic puzzle. But van Ginkel does a solid job with the Paradise Suite. It's beautifully shot, with classic direction that knows when to pull into a character and when to sit back and watch the action, and there's a natural lyrical sensibility about how the stories flow together. There's never a sense that any particular storyline is being forced into conflict just to mirror the others, and it's never jarring when we're taken from one character to the next.
There are some missed opportunities, though. In 2002, Lukas Moodysson directed the criminally underseen Lilya 4-Ever. It's ostensibly the exact same story as the Jenya storyline, only Lilya was Russian and she was taken to Sweden. The complex characterizations and gradual documentation of crushed hope made that film truly devastating, which is something that van Ginkel doesn't quite manage with his interpretation of that narrative. Jenya's spirit is almost immediately crushed, and her storyline becomes that of horrifying repetition until it integrates Yaya, whose quest for the titular paradise — and whose passionate care for others — ultimately lead to martyrdom. Similarly, the Lukas storyline, despite being more of an upper-class interpretation of how blindly striving to achieve dreams can lead to devastation, never quite finds the same sort of emotional footing as the others. It's too clean and pedestrian considering the subject matter: a teenager girl being raped and a war criminal bringing his cycle of abuse to a new country.
Still, the overall message about the idea of paradise and the partial lie that the self, or success, needs to be found far from home, does hold up. Though there's some underlying commentary about the culture in Amsterdam and how it ultimately fosters the exploitation of immigrants, van Ginkel is more interested in telling a cautionary tale of self-preservation. Some might feel that such an endeavour is cynical, but in a cinematic landscape where the message that dreams can come true for anyone is shoved into the collective mindscape of the impressionable, it's vital that a bit of reality exist to remind people to be careful and practical while reaching for that rainbow.
The Paradise Suite isn't a perfect film, but it is compelling and, at times, quite moving, which is quite commendable for a second feature.