‘Paradise Hills’: Film Review | Sundance 2019

Emma Roberts stars as a woman forcibly interned at a prison-like finishing school in ‘Paradise Hills,’ a sci-fi fantasy co-starring Danielle Macdonald, Awkwafina and Milla Jovovich.

A young woman from the upper echelons of society is sent to a Mediterranean island that’s part spa, part conversion camp and rehab center in the futuristic-retro sci-fi flight of fancy Paradise Hills. A feature debut for Spanish-born Alice Waddington, who hails from advertising and fashion and directed the well-travelled short Disco Inferno, and written by Nacho Vigalondo (Colossal, Timecrimes) and Brian Deeleuw (Daniel Isn’t Real), this decidedly loopy work is positively overstuffed with wacky ideas and visual excess, which will make it divisive viewing, even among receptive festival audiences. It’s best to assume the filmmakers have their tongues at least somewhat in cheek, and just embrace the crazy as a pulpy camp indulgence, like some kind of post-feminist Barbarella meets The Handmaid’s Tale.

Set either in the future or an alternative reality or perhaps just the filmmakers’ own fervid imaginations, society is divided into just two classes, privileged “uppers” and downtrodden “lowers,” although not much is seen of the latter’s world. The opening sequence starts with the opulent reception to celebrate the wedding of smirking squillionaire Son (Arnaud Valois) and posh girl Uma (Emma Roberts). The latter is first met singing for the crowd while wearing what can only be described as a bejeweled catcher’s mask and an intricate wedding gown as assorted minions twirl her around, holding out hundreds of meters of white chiffon, creating Busby Berkeley-style overhead-shot abstractions. As the couple retire to bed to consummate their union, Son remarks that he hardly recognizes the pliant Uma. It’s as if she’s a completely different person.

The Bottom Line

Never mind the script; feel the fabrics.

Cue a title card explaining that two months ago, a much more rebellious and spirited Uma woke up to find herself at Paradise Hills, a resort-cum-concentration-camp designed to bring willful, non-conforming girls like Uma into line. The Duchess (Milla Jovovich, a hoot) is the picture-hat wearing grande dame in charge who promises to transform Uma and the others into happy, placid young women — better versions of themselves. Uma is placed in a dorm — where the beds look like bassinets that mated with ice sculptures — with two other residents. Chloe (Danielle Macdonald, Dumplin’) is a sunny soul who is being forced to slim down. Yu (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians) needs refinement now that she’s come to live with her Upper relatives in mainland China. Staying in another part of the compound is world-famous pop star Amarna (Eiza Gonzalez, Welcome to Marwen), sent to break her desire to sing her own kind of songs instead of the pap her handlers prefer, and to rid her of her Sapphic tendencies.  

As the Duchess and the gently coercive staff escort the girls to various appointments — beauty makeovers, yoga and gymnastics, brainwashing with the help of holograms and a merry-go-round pony (a truly bonkers segment) — Uma plots a way to escape. The arrival of childhood friend Markus (Jeremy Irvine, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again), who’s come to work as a guard, offers hope that they might make a getaway together by boat. However, the island is full of strange surprises and hidden traps.

Words can’t do justice to the truly lavish sets and costumes on display here which are so dazzling, intricate and bizarre they serve as a useful distraction from the awkward dialogue and plot holes. In the film’s press notes, designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Iris van Herpen are invoked, among many other influences, especially Japanese couture cos-play. The residents’ day dresses, white and quasi-Victorian in silhouette, are trimmed with leather straps that form cages around the shoulders while Elizabethan-style ruffs frame the head. Elsewhere, a thousand different influences and styles come into play, and at times the whole shebang feels more like a look book for a catwalk collection come to life. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if you relax and let it sweep you away. Like the classic British TV series from the 1960s, The Prisoner, another obvious touchstone here, it doesn’t make much sense — but if you watch it stoned, it’s great.

Production companies: A Nostromo Pictures presentation of a Nostromo Pictures, Colina Paraiso AIE production, with the participation of RTVE
Cast: Emma Roberts, Danielle Macdonald, Awkwafina, Jeremy Irvine, Arnaud Valois, Eiza Gonzalez, Milla Jovovich

Director: Alice Waddington
Screenwriters: Nacho Vigalondo, Brian Deleeuw
Producers: Adrian Guerra, Nuria Valls
Director of photography: Josu Inchaustegui
Production designer: Laia Colet
Costume designer: Alberto Varcarcel
Editor: Guillermo De La Cal
Music: Lucas Vidal
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)

Sales: Nostromo Pictures

95 minutes