Welcome to the Dollhouse
Alice Waddington’s Paradise Hills is a glitzy visual calling card
Every shot of Paradise Hills is otherworldly in its beauty. I’m not sure how it “reads” as a narrative, but as a visual work of art, a tone poem, and a riff on some familiar but evergreen themes it makes one stand and applaud. The 29-year-old director, Alice Waddington, hails from Spain and first made her mark with the eleven-minute short film Disco Inferno in 2016. The short is worth the 99-cent rental on Amazon; its story is a little baffling — it has to do with a “minion of hell,” dressed like a masked and sinuous spy out of Georges Franju’s Judex, trying to rescue an ingenue destined for demonic soul enslavement, or something — but it plays like a surreal silent film (except when it doesn’t), and it’s good preparation for the elliptical, allusive sights and sounds of Paradise Hills.
We wake up along with the confused Uma (Emma Roberts) in a remote island stronghold, a cross between a palace and a well-appointed girls’ prison. Young women, it seems, are sent here to be trained out of their troublesome quirks and habits. The society that produces these women — including Chloe (Danielle Macdonald), sent to become more skinny, and Yu (Awkwafina), sent to become less Awkwafina — is some sort of post-war Hunger Games dystopia/utopia, depending on whether you’re an Upper or a Lower (as in class). Uma wants out of the island paradise; she has a like-minded friend in pop star Amarna (Eiza González), who’s here apparently because she started making personal music frowned on by those in charge. Standing in her and everyone’s way is the Duchess (Milla Jovovich), whose habit of snipping thorns off rose stems is a bit too tidy a metaphor for her supervision of the girls’ re-education.
But honestly the plot (by Waddington and Sofía Cuenca, worked into a script by Nacho Vigalondo and Brian DeLeeuw) is entirely irrelevant to the pleasures here. Paradise Hills is about creamy pink interiors and sun-dappled exteriors, all cloaking something immeasurably darker and uglier. It’s about the masochistic female fantasy of being persecuted for being oneself and shipped off to a strange place with other women, who together will rise as a sharp-toothed sisterhood against the oppressors. (There’s some of that, but not too much; as it is, the movie is never less exciting than when it tries to gin up excitement via chases, sneaking around, etc.) It’s also about loving ancient gothy films so much it hurts. It’s every bit as gleaming an act of cinema worship as Anna Biller’s odious The Love Witch, except that Waddington actually finds things to say about the things whose surfaces she and cinematographer Josu Inchaustegui photograph so indelibly. I can see Paradise Hills becoming a cult favorite among a certain type of dramatic teen — its sensibility is authentically female in every frame, asserting the power of its girls and women from the start, and denying that the structure of the patriarchy (and the women complicit in it, like the Duchess) has anything to offer them but chains. The movie doesn’t hate men, but it sure doesn’t have a lot of love for them either.
To which I say, good. A movie whose identification is completely with women and their experiences is particularly welcome now, not to politicize overly what should be a timeless empowerment fable and a grab bag of brightly-hued confections. The performances, I have to say, lean towards the artificial — common among directors with strongly visual instincts — save for Awkwafina, who is always radiantly, daffily herself, even in a more solemn context like this. But there’s literally always something great to look at; Waddington seems to have walked on set for each shot, tweaked the colors and decor 75%, and then called action. Most people will see Paradise Hills at home or even on their phone, not on the big shiny screen its visuals demand, and that’s a pity.
But the eye and the sensibility on view in Waddington’s work (I hope Disco Inferno comes as an extra on the eventual Paradise Hills Blu-ray) are not to be discounted. The movie is a glimmering calling card showing deep-dish promise; whoever scouted the amazing locations deserves a case of beer, and overall this is the most pictorially arresting sci-fi debut feature since Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca. As for the animating story, I acknowledge that I’m not its ideal audience, though even some women, like Vulture’s Alison Willmore, have pooh-poohed it — “a dystopian princess fantasy,” she called it, with perhaps some unconscious racism under its hood. (Why isn’t Awkwafina the lead in this?) I am probably more forgiving and sentimental about the movie’s narrative and complaints than that. It works as a lavishly crafted daydream shading into nightmare. It started to lose me around the climax, but when it had me, it had me.