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A Tiger in Paradise Perfects the Music Documentary

Director Mikel Cee Karlsson explores the inner world of singer-songwriter José Gonzalez in his lyrical new film.

by Noémie Attia

A Tiger in Paradise is a true musical documentary where we enter a musician’s psyche by means of sonic and visual expression. Standing on the porous line that separates stability and madness, concrete ideas and the surreal, the project is a close collaboration between acclaimed musician José Gonzalez and his long time friend and filmmaker Mikel Cee Karlsson. 

Unlike many documentaries about musicians, Gonzalez not only takes on the role of the protagonist, but also that of co-creator, alongside Karlsson. “Our one inspiration, our one way for Mikel to sell this idea to do this film,” says Gonzalez, “was Nick Cave’s 20 000 Days on Earth. And Nick Cave is very good at writing and talking.” The film floats through ideas, poetic at times, taking the form of an essay, then a journal entry, then a philosophical meditation. Although the voice-over is in Gonzalez’s words, it was co-written by the two artists, who share a passion for existential philosophy, the human condition, and socialist utopias. Gonzalez compares the writing process to “being a band where you have two different tastes and you just continue until both are happy.” 

The pair met over 15 years ago and have since collaborated on many projects including music videos and a previous feature length documentary called The Extraordinary Ordinary Life of José González (2010). A Tiger in Paradise is a much more personal iteration, exploring the musician’s intimate reflections as he writes songs for his new album. Among the stream of thoughts emerge calmer, almost grounding musical numbers of Gonzalez’s unfinished songs, that play like  music videos. Music and film become interwoven, illustrating the symbiotic dynamic of the two artists. 

“We’ve been talking about the fact that we’re using each other,” Karlsson jokingly says. “José has a lot of things that he researches and is really into, which is hard to talk about with the music. But the music is one layer and then the film is something else so I can kind of use him, in a way, as a protagonist for things that I want to portray or talk about.” And vice-versa, Mikel understands me,” Gonzalez adds, “more than many other people. So when he looks at the lyrics, many times he knows what I’m referring to and then I have to say that it’s only part of the lyrics.”

Although it is classified as a documentary, A Tiger in Paradise is made of carefully constructed scenes and even some fictional ones. “This was super planned out. Actually like 99 per cent of what we shot is in the film so it’s like super written in a way.” Karlsson says, laughing, “which made it also a special project.” The figure of Laura, Gonzalez’s daughter, embodies a release of control over the image. A shot lingers and shows her almost out of frame, as if evading the image. Reality becomes invisible as it occurs off screen, reminding us of the cinematic apparatus.

“There are times where I forgot you were filming and I’m not acting completely,” Gonzalez recalls. “So that was a good trick on your part, to leave the camera going.”

As the director of photography of A Tiger in Paradise, Karlsson masterfully renders Gonzalez’s states of mind with surreal yet natural shots of Swedish landscapes. Some recall Martin Parr’s beach series and some resemble Ruben Östlund’s editorial photography in Triangle of Sadness. The latter is not a coincidence, since Karlsson is credited as editor of the Palme d’Or winning movie. 

With his many different hats, Karlsson is a versatile artist. “Since I come from a sort of DIY culture, and skateboarding in the 90s,” he says, “I think you had to kind of become the kind of director that can shoot and edit and work with sound and a lot of different things, to become a kind of broad type of director and also work with fiction or documentaries or music videos and art and so on.” He has been perfecting his art, working with different genres for many years. His experience culminates with A Tiger in Paradise, his most accomplished and all-encompassing project. 

A Tiger in Paradise is a creative documentary that oscillates between essay film, music video, fantasy, and even horror. More than portraying a musician, it’s about “opening up for discussing issues that feel relevant to the human condition and our place in time,” Gonzalez sums up. “In our modern times where we have very accelerating technologies and ideologies that are clashing, we need to collaborate more and more but we seem to do it only partially.”

A Tiger in Paradise is streaming on Mubi Canada.