DIR: Ulrich Seidl • WRI: Ulrich Seidl, , Veronika Franz • PRO: Philippe Bober, Christine Ruppert, Ulrich Seidl • DOP: Edward Lachman, Wolfgang Thaler • ED: Christof Schertenleib • DES: Andreas Donhauser, Renate Martin • Cast: Margarete Tiesel, Peter Kazungu, Inge Maux
The first in his trilogy of Paradise films each focusing on a different woman from the same family, Ulrich Seidl’s ironically titled Paradise: Love follows Teresa, a 50-year-old divorcee who travels to Kenya as a sex-tourist.
The opening scene establishes the film as one not afraid to challenge its audience on what they find embarrassing or distasteful. The alleged cause of mass walk-outs, Teresa overlooks a group with Down syndrome enjoying a bumper car ride. While fundamentally inoffensive, acute close-ups and sharp editing creates a profound sense of guilt as we are drawn into thinking it funny or grotesque. Having no further bearing on the plot, the scene sets the tone for the forced discomfort that is to follow.
To escape her hollow life in Austria, Teresa ships her daughter off to fat-camp, a story to be explored in Paradise: Hope, and packs her bags for the sun, sea and sex of coastal Kenya. Paradise: Love’s ‘paradise’ is a warped one, as is its mocking depiction of love. On the white sandy beaches, shirtless African men stand with trinkets and jewellery behind a rope separating them from a row of tanning white women. As we soon learn, it is more than just their wares they are selling. Initially encouraged by her lewd pals, Teresa gets involved with the local boys who sell sex and love for financial favours.
How aware Teresa initially is of the whole arrangement, and indeed how convinced we are of her proclamations that its true love that she desires, are left to speculation. Those expecting a didactic tale that holds you by the hand will find a film that leaves its audience to draw their own conclusions.
What is indisputable however is the unflinching audacity with which Seidl approaches the subject of sex. In a long, improvised scene that echoes Seidl’s earlier film, Import/Export, the women hire a young male to strip and perform sexual acts that descends into them chastising him when he cannot get aroused.
Even for those not easily offended, Paradise: Love will make for uncomfortable viewing, and it is not just the gratuitous amount of overweight, naked fiftysomethings, or its use of humiliation, that makes it so. Every aspect of the film seems orchestrated to unnerve, to embarrass. The cinematography by Ed Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler is impressive in the sense that it achieves just that with carefully framed, drawn out shots of people staring into the camera, into your soul. It all amounts to the feeling of a younger sibling jabbing you in the side asking, “Are you uncomfortable yet, are you uncomfortable yet?”, over and over. But of course, that is its intention. The question is what does this achieve, and is there enough else to like to make your ordeal worth it?
Well, the film features brave and engaging performances by both Margarete Tiesel and the largely amateur African cast. Seidl’s obsession with tableaux shines through with some imposing images, such as the reoccurring shot of the men on the beach, and there is also a surprising undercurrent of humour that is enough to break up the seriousness of the subject but not, I’m afraid, the discomfort.
In its exploration of the parasitic, the film dupes us into thinking we know the direction of exploitation, only for our attitudes to evolve with Teresa’s relationships with the young men. However I can’t help thinking that, besides raising awareness of these mutually exploitative relationships, there are few points made, leaving us with little reward for our work. There could be more to be said about the relationship between love, sex and appearance, but these concepts are pushed aside in the pursuit of confrontation.
The Paradise trilogy was originally planned as one film, but was dissected when it was thought the parallel stories were unconnected. What results is a relentless film that will interest some but leave others more interested in their nearest exit.
Paradise: Love is released on 14th June 2013