Film Review: Paradise: LoveUlrich Seidl’s look at female sex tourism is compelling up to a point, and then just numbing.
The fetishization of the cougar in popular entertainment gets decisively terminated in Austrian iconoclast Ulrich Seidl’s indecorous Paradise: Love. Like Laurent Cantet’s 2005 feature Heading South, the film focuses on sex tourism from the novel perspective of the middle-aged female consumer. But, as might be expected from a director whose work has been defined by his fascination with corporeal and behavioral ugliness, the scenario is pushed to extremes both repugnant and repetitive. Superficially provocative but ultimately pointless, this is one punishing vacation.
The second entry from Seidl (Dog Days) to compete in Cannes after 2007’s Import Export, the film is the opening part of a trilogy. Originally planned as a single epic feature, the stories follow three women from the same family as they take separate trips. Still to come are Paradise: Faith, about a Catholic missionary, and Paradise: Hope, about a teenager sent to diet camp.
There’s much to admire in the formal rigor of Seidl’s filmmaking. His background in documentary is evident in the striking use of static shots and stark compositions by his cinematography team of Wolfgang Thaler and Ed Lachman. Like Mike Leigh, Seidl works to a structured improvisation plan, and no doubt there will be praise for the unflinching, vanity-free performance of his lead actress Margarethe Tiesel. Whenever women of a certain age with real bodies get naked and sign up for sexual and emotional humiliation onscreen, the word “brave” inevitably surfaces.
The film kicks off with an attention-grabbing though gratuitously uncomfortable scene with a group of mentally handicapped people riding bumper cars, their faces contorting with each collision into masks of liberating joy, stunned confusion or both. One of their supervisors is Teresa (Tiesel), who packs her uncommunicative lump of a teenage daughter off to a relative and heads to Kenya for some sunshine.
There she meets up with fellow Austrian Inge (Inge Maux). A monster of grotesque salaciousness in a tiger-print one-piece and processed blond dreads, Inge instantly starts rhapsodizing about the tasty treat of black skin. Teresa at first is unnerved by the young beach boys that besiege her, selling souvenirs, trinkets or themselves to the white European women known as “sugar mamas.” But after an abortive attempt to hook up with Gabriel (Gabriel Nguma Mwarua), who’s too slick and down-to-business for her, she succumbs to the more artful charms of Munga (Peter Kuzungu).
Taking more time over the “courtship,” Munga does a passable job of convincing Teresa that he sees beyond the sagging breasts and rippling stomach to the beautiful woman inside her. But it’s more because that’s what she wants to believe. Soon he starts asking for handouts, claiming he needs cash for his sister’s baby, his father’s medical bills or his cousin’s school, but never for himself. Teresa refuses to read the writing on the wall until it becomes inescapable, triggering her enraged indignation.
Working with his regular script collaborator Veronika Franz, Seidl makes the point fairly early that the line between exploiter and exploited is a blurry one, and that what Teresa is starved for is love, not sex. But he nonetheless locks the character and actress into a cycle of repeat degradation in the blunt film’s increasingly thankless second hour, as Teresa keeps giving it one more shot.
Reconciled to the failure of the enterprise, she even tries her hand at good old-fashioned raunch when Inge and a couple more lewd hornbags from the resort come over to celebrate Teresa’s birthday with a live gift. Watching these four women in various stages of drunken undress get teabagged by the unfortunate recruit is not pretty.
That would be fine if there were a fresh point to be made, or if there were some deeper insight into the central character. Tiesel deserves credit for declining to soften Teresa’s hard edges in a bid for sympathy. But every time there’s a glimmer of poignancy in her solitude and disappointment, the director negates it by having her participate in some other form of damning indignity or patronizing insensitivity.
Seidl doesn’t appear to like any of his characters much, or show much discernible interest in their inner lives. He made a fascinatingly disturbing portrait of people sublimating their need for intimacy in unwholesome ways in the 1996 doc Animal Love, which may be his most fully realized film. This one is a psychologically empty wallow.
—The Hollywood Reporter