QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM TALLINN
Tallinn’s festival programmer, Edvinas Pukšta suggests Estonian director Triin Ruumet’s Dark Paradise (Tume Paradiis, 2023) is one of those films that is so divisive, we’ll either love it or hate it. The director’s latest film, however, might be a limbo between the two for some people, who’ll find themselves feeling like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights. And while no film is impervious to indifference, the director and his co-writers, Andris Feldmanis and Livia Ulman, have taken a bloody good stab at fending off lethargy.
Martin Roos, the local business leader of a small Estonian town, is dead. He has left his family with debts that will force them to sell off the property. His daughter, Karmen (Rea Lest) places a rose on his chest before the casket is closed. Afterwards, when all are gathered around the table, she toasts her late father, saying, “I lost my only guiding light. My soul desperately cries. Farewell, daddy.”
Also at the funeral is Karmen’s half-brother Viktor (Jörgen Liik), a slight and nervous looking young man, who a couple of women discreetly mock. His focus seems to be inheriting Martin’s motorcycle, while Karmen argues with her mother about selling her precious Mercedes.
From here, Ruumet crafts a mix of psychosexual thriller and black comedy. Dark Paradise doesn’t try to be funny. Instead, if there’s humour to be found, it’s an instinctive connection between the film and its audience. For some, the unconventional baptism Karmen and her friends give Viktor, tattooing him with a swastika and penis, will tickle their humour, while earning an uncomfortable laugh from others. Even Viktor’s difficult relationship with his grandmother and his efforts to beef up his masculinity, that brings him into conflict with the local motorcycle club leader, will elicit some laughs.
Dark Paradise’s punk-like and irreverent persona is less provocative than it would be if it were not for the anger, pain and sadness of its characters. Karmen and her boyfriend’s exploration of masochistic sex, sexual workshops and orgies, taps into sexuality as provocateur. Meanwhile, the emphasis on alcohol, drugs, and violence, makes the film an extension of the turmoil in both Karmen and Viktor’s tormented souls. Beneath the hallucinogenic, dreamlike and fantastical aesthetic, are two characters weighed down by personal struggles. Whether it’s intimacy issues for Karmen, who accuses her mother of being the reason she’ll try anything to feel something, or Viktor’s lack of empowerment, they’re vulnerable to being seen as damaged characters deserving of our pity.
Neither are intended to be warm characters that we think of as being likeable. Instead, they pique our interest. From the beginning, Karmen is an entitled ‘daddy’s little princess’, and Viktor transforms from victim into a monster. The filmmakers could have exploited his vulnerability to make him more likeable, but their intent was to embrace negative emotions. This restrains their compassion for his suffering as he becomes manipulated by his anger and desire for empowered respect.
Despite the unattractive aspects of their personalities, we should still try to sympathise and respect both these characters enough to understand, and not pity them. After all, Viktor’s grandmother might have decided to give him a home when his mother committed suicide, but has she since undermined his self-esteem? And how often has he been victimised or dismissed by others? Meanwhile, Karmen’s mother talks about wanting a baby with her lover Sven, telling her daughter she wants to do it right this time. As for Karmen’s boyfriend, when asked why she dates him, she replies, because he’s a dick. These are two young and troubled characters deserving understanding, not pity.
Ruumet positions Karmen as the film’s main character, but Dark Paradise feels like Viktor’s story. This could be because of the emphasis on their internal and external selves, as well as their character arcs.
Karmen stalls with her thesis, but she gets a new job in IT, goes to the gym and engages in masochistic sex. We observe Karmen from a voyeuristic point-of-view, as she enters a dependent relationship with her boyfriend, replacing her father. She’s a woman lost without a dominant male presence in her life, whose new lifestyle is built on sand. As we fear, her life once again falls apart.
Oddly, she becomes more sympathetic as the story progresses, unlike her half-brother, whose head the filmmakers put us inside. In one scene, we see the internal violence that he imagines. This movement between fantasy and reality feels real, not just a narrative trick. What’s striking is how we have to remind ourselves that his imagined violent outburst wasn’t real.
Karmen’s distance makes her feel more real for the audience, by playing on her intimacy issues. The opposite is true of Viktor, whose story is served by sharing his vulnerability. Yet just as she’s borne from her mother’s failings, she’s the one that awakens his violence with her cruel baptism. She’s mother to his rage, freeing what was already there, turning the frail boy into a surprising tour deforce, adding to the film’s incestuous descent.
Beneath its provocation, Dark Paradise is a tender story about being lost, not only in grief, but trying to escape who we’re told we are. It’s a captivating fairy tale for adults, without the naïveté of innocent protagonists, but youth tainted by angst.
Dark Paradise just premiered in the Baltic Competition of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.