The first in Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy, Paradise: Love looks at holiday racism and fifty-something sex with the Viennese director’s familiar wry humour.
Stranger Than Paradise by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
“Never before in cinema have I been able to look straight into hell” proclaimed Werner Herzog in praise of Ulrich Seidl’s documentary Animal Love. And now, almost two decades later, we rise heavenwards with Love, part one of Seidl’s Paradise trilogy featuring holidaymakers in search of happiness through love, faith and hope. And while Ulrich Seidl may not exactly be your go-to director for a “woman’s movie”, with Paradise the Austrian director is striking a new path. There’s still the characteristic interplay between documentary and fiction, but the critical distance of Dog Days or Import/Export has been replaced with a sardonic kind of empathy. The director’s signature (and oft copied) tableaux remain, but Paradise: Love is an intimate film of womanhood, brash and bold.
Leaving her job, daughter and cat behind, Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) heads off on holiday to a resort on the Kenyan coast. There she meets Inge (Inge Maux) who initiates her into the dark underworld of holiday romance. Venturing beyond the hotel’s cordons into a sea of touts and taxi drivers, Teresa is rescued by beach boy Gabriel (Gabriel Mwarua), and gradually coaxed into bed. Overwhelmed, she flees. But it’s not long before she finds herself another protector, this time into the arms of Munga (Peter Kazungu). The have sex, but soon he’s asking her for money, not for sex but for his sister in hospital, his infant niece, his sick father. Teresa moves on, but it’s the same story with Salama (Carlos Mkutano), and after trying it on with birthday stripper and hotel barman Josphat (Josphat Hamisi), Teresa is left crying in her hotel room, unsatisfied and alone.
Sex, it’s a funny business. And in Ulrich Seidl’s tale of an Austrian tourist in Kenya caught somewhere between hoping for love and paying for sex, it surely is. Nowhere perhaps are the lines more blurred between sex and money, as sugar mamas meet and make love to beach boys, before paying them hand over fist for supposed hospital bills. Like Laurent Cantet’s Heading South, Paradise: Love sees a fifty-something woman hit the beach in search of holiday romance. But Seidl’s distanced, deadpan framing doesn’t fetishise the meeting of black and white skin. Instead, his tableaux of rococo nudes reclining beneath mosquito nets give a painterly beauty to the awkward and sordid. And thanks to an improvised script and a fantastic performance from Margarete Tiesel, we’re privy to private women’s conversations, discussing the intricacies of female shaving and male members. It’s a complex maelstrom of conflicting emotions, simultaneously made to feel old against the beachboys’ youthful bodies, but also recapturing a lost youth. Like a prattling schoolgirl, Teresa becomes a virgin again, a sugar mama for the first time. And it’s with a coy girlishness that Teresa gives Munga love lessons, teaching him how to stroke her breasts and how to kiss mzungu-style, pole-pole.
Baying like bitches on heat and ululating at their naked stripper, the four Viennese women are like crocodiles after a piece of meat. For them, the beachboys are objects to be admired and conquered, nice ears, hands and thighs. But sex becomes embarrassingly political when black men are purchased by white women, Inge telling Teresa “He belongs to you” as she delivers her gift-tied birthday present. In the Venn diagram of sex and race, it’s an awkward intersection – performing monkey meets paid performer. In the bar, cooing over barman Josphat, Inge and Teresa hoot with laughter at his German accent, taunting him with tongue-twisters Speckschwartel and Blunzengröstl. Below the surface, racist cliches abound, the women guffawing at how the beachboys all look the same, have big dicks and smell of coconut. It might be an exotic paradise, but still the bathroom sink and toilet need disinfected.
Indeed, there’s a lingering xenophobia to Seidl’s script – Teresa is overwhelmed by a tsunami of tireless touts every time she leaves the resort, the plot demanding her rescue by Gabriel and then Munga. Paradise: Love is razor-sharp in its depiction of the awkward powerplay between tourists and locals, Teresa alternating between friendly refusal, coy disapproval, warning threats and hostile rejection. But love is never really an option in this off-balance world of commerce, as one beachboy is indistinguishable from another, all gutless liars. But it’s not all sex, and Seidl also touches on the ethics of filmmaking, in a similar transaction with Teresa feeding the monkeys on her balcony in exchange for a photo. She takes photos of sleeping schoolchildren on a (reluctantly paid) visit and photos of Munga naked – a kind of digital ivory trophy she also ends up paying for. Photography, and therefore cinema, is a kind of paid holiday romance. But using the example of his gratuitous portraits of daytrippers with Down syndrome on bumper cars (like a series of moving Diane Arbus portraits), Seidl answers, aiming for a fictional (and maybe even purchased) but unadulterated truth.
There are typical Seidl details, ridiculing holidaymakers sunning themselves in their porches or playing beach games flipping sandals. And while the Austrians make fairer game, the Kenyans don’t escape either, allowing themselves to be dressed up in folkloric zebra costumes. But it’s in the editing above all that Paradise: Love is most cutting, with the titles coming in neatly between Teresa saying goodbye to her daughter and a shot of semi-naked Kenyan pool boys – it’s crystal clear what kind of love she’s after. Seidl’s semi-documentary, improvisational approach, unearthing a story in the cutting room, allows Paradise Love to lose energy in the endless repetition of tableaux and beachboys. And the film’s conclusion, with Teresa crying on her bed after hitting rock bottom, is utterly perplexing – was it really love she was after? But with Seidl’s deliberately surreal ending of three acrobats flipping along the beach, there’s a suggestion that whatever it is Teresa’s after, love or sex, it’s still out there. Cue part two. Keep the faith.
Paradise: Love is released on 14th June 2013 in the UK