Documentary Releases: Queen of Paradis (2020)-Reviewed

What goes into making art? That's a vague question but one that has endless answers. Many films, both narrative and documentary, have attempted to either answer this or show the processes that go into answering it. Queen of Paradis is yet another entry but just because it's exploring an age old question doesn't mean it's not a journey worth taking.

After having huge success with her first exhibition, Jungle, visual artist Reine Paradis, sets out on a road trip across America to stage her next project, Midnight. One would be forgiven for initially judging this as a vanity project for an artist that many outside of the art world aren't familiar with (her husband being the director doesn't dispel that worry). Those concerns wash away almost immediately when we meet Reine.

Completely devoid of pretense, full of infectious joy and endlessly watchable, Reine is a compelling screen presence. In her undertaking of a massive journey, she treats every moment and every setback as an adventure. The stereotype of the tortured artist is thrown around too often and while Paradis has her own demons, it's the last thing you'd use to describe her. 

If you didn't know her or her work before this, through sheer force of personality, she feels like a friend by the end of the film. She's a complex character whose joyous outlook betrays a life of ups and downs. Her work reflects this by being at once a colorful ode to pop art while being surreal enough to make you feel like something isn't quite right. It's often funny and revealing, as well. Paradis makes a point to show her body in every piece, combating a life of body image struggles. Her neon-soaked, embracing of herself through her art works as a triumphant blow to insecurity and frustration. 

The journey is structured by documenting the creation of each of her pieces. We see each one from inception as a drawing to completion as a surreal photograph. Each piece is staged in settings that are off the beaten path and often dangerous. What's most thrilling about all of this is how committed Reine is to her art in spite of boundaries. From climbing up a massive salt hill to hanging perilously off of a billboard, Reine throws herself into creating the boldest pieces she can think of. A highlight is a scene at a small airport runway in Arkansas. Between planes taking off every 5 minutes and the sun defiantly hiding behind clouds, a topless Paradis and husband Lindstrom scramble back and forth across the runway for four hours trying to get the perfect shot. It's a funny, thrilling and vulnerable moment that encapsulates Paradis about as perfectly as anything in the film. 

This structure has the potential to make the film repetitive and monotonous but director Carl Lindstrom makes the smart decision to detour the film's journey to Paradis' French countryside birthplace midway through. Breaking up the Americana landscapes, both industrial and natural, this brief respite gives us our clearest insight into who Paradis is and where she's come from. In the quaint, beautiful village, we meet her father and see her early fascination with paint and other mediums. We also get to see Paradis at her most stripped down, emotionally. Childlike wonder mixed with moments of regret bubble up as she returns home. It's the final dimension needed to round her out as more than just another visual artist trying to make a name for themselves.

Queen of Paradis is a deceptively compelling document of an artist that if you didn't know going in, will become instantly recognizable by the end. Not only is her work wholly her own but the film provides a fascinating look into the creative process. Perhaps most important, it humanizes the person behind these wonderfully surreal pieces and in doing so provides an inspiration to anyone struggling with their bodies. In tackling her insecurities, Paradis finds value within herself through her art. It's a lovely, joyous ode to the creative spirit and the necessity to find that spirit within yourself.

What goes into making art? Queen of Paradis doesn't answer that on a macro level. But on a micro level, through one women's journey across America, we find the hardships, both physical and mental, that go into making art can result in some of the most exciting, fresh and jubilant pieces. 

-Brandon Streussnig