The tale of Reine Paradis begins with the story of how the French-born artist came to the United States to pursue her dream of being an artist. After being fired as a photographer’s assistant, she had to make a decision, one which plagues so many at a crossroads: jump to a new gig or go all-in on her own vision. The end result is her photo series, titled “Jungle,” which she made between 2014-2016. To look at her work is to be struck with a sense of confusion in its paradoxical simplicity and complexity. Following Paradis as she works on completing her follow-up photo series, titled “Midnight,” her husband and photographer, Carl Lindstrom, records the last six months of development on the project, traversing the country looking for the perfect locations to bring her art to life. The finished documentary, titled Queen of Paradis, does more than present how Paradis creates the photo series, it demonstrates how each piece is profoundly personal in its conception.
Queen of Paradis is effectively split into two interwoven pieces. One tracks the cross-country journey to photograph the scenarios Paradis created in order to meet the deadline for “Midnight” and the other explores more of the artist herself. Splitting the story this way works wonderfully to get the audience into the action, as it were, creating interest and investment in Paradis by showing us how she creates her designs by hand before manufacturing pieces to take to shooting locations. This offers some wonderful background so that when the cross-country journey starts, the focus is more on what Paradis endures in order to get the shot she sees in her mind. Paradis never intended to be a model for her pieces, yet her inclusion makes them far more introspective and engaging than if she was absence. Also, though Lindstrom does also serve as her photographer, she decides the angles, she determines if more shots are needed, and she is the final word on whether they are ready to move on. This does not minimize Lindstrom’s contributions in the slightest, but it should be clear that, while she is not the one pulling the trigger on the shots, she is most certainly the designer and arbiter. So whether it means crawling under a fence to get access to a salt mine, staging a photo shoot on a billboard overlooking a highway, walking 2+ hours through the sand dunes of Montana to find the exact shape and style she requires for the emotion of the design, attempting over and over to catch just the right angle on a working tarmac, and even risking arrest for laying on someone’s residential walkway, Paradis does each of these things her way with enormous risk, yes, but also an intensity for authenticity. Her work marries the real with the uncanny to create pieces of art that straddle the line between the familiar and the foreign to create her surreal works.
This second takes place within the first, appearing around the halfway point, and shifting the focus for a bit before swinging back to the main story. With this brief tangent in the timeline, Lindstrom goes with Paradis to the childhood home she lived in until she was ten. Here, we learn about her upbringing from two artist parents who divorced, learn why she uses the deep blue so predominantly in her work, and can start to see some of the inspiration for her individual pieces. If the first piece is to show Paradis at work, her drive and ambition on full display, then the second is to uncover the person, the energy, who creates it. Lindstrom’s direction shifts a bit from an almost conspiratorial perspective of the first piece, which placed the audience right in the break-ins, the wanderings, and the trek across the country for the perfect shooting location. In this introspective piece, Lindstrom uses more traditional interviewing pieces intercut with Paradis taking the audience on a tour of her home and showing videos of childhood. Ever the artist himself, Lindstrom shows videos to the audience via the television in Reine’s childhood home (either projected digitally or actually running is hard to tell via the crispness of the images) and the same visual static of an old analog player appears as a mentions of transitions. The sequence is highly informative, a welcome embrace by Paradis to enter her home and her memories, so as to see why she uses Poster Red in “Midnight,” and the powerful blue as the main color in both collections. The downside of this sequence is that the pacing is so very different from the main storyline that the energy drops significantly, requiring the return to the “Midnight” thread to regain momentum before the conclusion.
As much as Queen of Paradis is about the artist herself, it’s negligent not to mention the visual and auditory style of the documentary itself. Much like how writer/director Kogonada’s Columbus utilizes the same architectural elements of the subject matter to craft staging of each scene and how writer/director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is not just a story of a painter falling in love with her subject, but is itself a painting given life in every frame, so does Lindstrom ensure that every shot is perfectly framed and exposed. The bright neon lime of Paradis’s costume shines brilliantly without blinding, as is the pure white of the salt. As each final print is a representation of Paradis’s internal vision, so is this adventure a beautiful rendering of a not-so-easy adventure. To that end, however, as beautiful as it all looks, the focus is so much on the securing of the shots Paradis needs, that there is little shown of the journey between shooting locations. The in-between moments are just as important to creation, so it’s a little frustrating not to gain some insight into her road personality, though it’s likely what the second piece is intended to accomplish narratively. In terms of sound, Lindstrom incorporates a similarly minimalistic synth score to go along with the adventure. There’s an odd audio leveling when the score’s in play, pumping out louder than the dialogue, so have your finger on the volume when it begins to play. It does, however, nicely underscore the visual elements of Paradis’s work and the overall playful, adventurous tone of the documentary.
As the frustration with quarantine sets in, a story like Queen of Paradis helps to put things into perspective. There’s a stereotype that art must be created through pain, the “tortured artist,” as it were. Through Lindstrom’s lens, Reine Paradis is anything but tortured. Has she experienced heartbreak and frustration? Absolutely. This is not hidden from the audience nor is it used as the foundation of her work. Rather, what’s made clear is that Paradis saw a moment for herself, a fork in the road, and she took the path that possessed the greater potential of leading to her dream. With two large shows under her belt, she’s well on her way in achieving her dreams. Now, of course, don’t take this as any call to arms or declaration that using your time at home must be used in pursuit of some lofty goal. Not all of us have that privilege. However, documentaries like Lindstrom’s offer a reminder of what can happen when one seizes upon an opportunity and takes a chance. Paradis appears well aware that her work runs the risk of being poorly received. She keeps working in spite of that chance. There’s a good lesson in here, not just to chase the American Dream and be resolute in the pursuit, but to recognize that it’s the creation that means something, not the adoration.
Released in select theaters and on VOD March 6th, 2020.
For more information on artist Reine Paradis, please go to her official website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.