Co-written by his wife, Veronika Franz, Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love—the first of his Paradise trilogy—follows Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), a 50-year-old Austrian single hausfrau who travels to a Kenyan beachside resort to escape her frustrating, sexless existence and sullen teenage daughter. There, Teresa is excited to learn from a friend (Inge Maux) the ins and outs of scoring what the out-of-shape women cannot get at home: sex, and a measure of companionship, with young men. The interactions between “Beach Boys,” as the young Kenyans call themselves, and their “Sugar Mamas,” the middle-aged, white clients, begin with the men peddling trinkets on the beach and flattering the women. Teresa falls hard for Munga (played by real-life Beach Boy Peter Kazungu), who gladly, even gently, serves as her bedmate and around-town companion. As she realizes the full extent of her power as a European with a bit of money, and her own inability to truly interest sexually the young men she beds, she becomes desperate and vicious.
The film opens with a disorienting scene: a group of mentally challenged people driving bumper cars around in circles—an image that is as much an injunction not to laugh as a provocation to do so. The ambivalent emotions on which the scene plays—pity, amusement, and uncertainty about the proper reaction to have—belie Paradise: Love’s larger preoccupations with the ethics of watching. The film entertains, titillates, disgusts, and confuses the viewer, who in turn becomes increasingly aware of him or herself as a spectator. A concluding striptease act during which the women ogle, molest, and mock in racial terms a Kenyan sex worker whose naked body is as much exposed to the roving camera as to the ululating women’s gazes and groping, drives home the point of spectatorial complicity. Watching Paradise: Love is a visceral, Schadenfreude-tinged experience that produces belly laughs and queasiness alike—sometimes in tandem.
Having been the subject of Laurent Cantet’s Heading South (05), female sex tourism in movies is not without precedent. Margarete Tiesel is not Charlotte Rampling though. The camera resolutely lingers on Teresa’s bulbous, pasty-white, nude body (which is certainly unlike the typical leading lady’s) rubbing up against the strapping naked Beach Boys. Seidl’s apparent forswearing of any significant supplemental lighting results in frank, sometimes harshly rendered sex scenes that are difficult to shake, and even slightly traumatic.
Paradise: Love contrasts rigidly formal fixed-camera establishing shots of Teresa in Austria with handheld camerawork showing her at the resort, depicting the frenzy of urban Kenya as much as Teresa’s state of mind. (The static compositions’ absolute symmetry is unnatural, almost absurd; the shots sometimes resemble unwitting parodies of a Thomas Struth photograph.) At times, the formalism is consonant with the narrative content, other times considerably less so. For example, a shot contrasting the white beachgoers sunbathing on the resort side of the beach with the shirtless Beach Boys standing upright on the other side, waiting still as statues, works as a visual pun: black and white people literally inhabit two very different if inextricable worlds in Kenya. Other ultra-symmetrical shots seem unmotivated, just rigid and banal. And some, like one scene’s arranging of the Austrian women on beach chairs in order from trimmest to plumpest, feel like playful directorial asides.
Seidl’s embrace of improvisation and his strategy of casting professional actors alongside nonprofessionals (here, the Beach Boys) give the film a cinéma vérité quality that sometimes prevents immersion in the story and at others lends it a fabular quality. Attentive audiences will notice the (clearly improvising) actors throwing more than a few furtive glances toward the camera, ostensibly looking for instructions from the director. Seidl’s brand of reality in Paradise: Love—inflected as it is by his predilection for long takes and vérité practices—be it surreal, naturalistic, or something else, is appealingly revolting. How—or whether—the film functions as an indictment of spectatorship, tourism as colonialism, and/or the degree to which globalization allows those forces to metastasize is for each viewer to decide.