16-18 July; DCA
Paradise: Love is the first instalment of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s Love, Faith, Hope trilogy which features a mother, her daughter and sister, each in search of happiness. In this opening film, the mother, 50 year-old Austrian divorcee Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) leaves adolescent daughter Meli (Melanie Lenz) with her sister (Maria Hofstatter) to holiday at a Kenyan beach resort.
Teresa is soon befriended by a woman (Inge Maux) who introduces her to the world of sex tourism. There follows for Teresa a series of bleak, mechanical sexual relationships with handsome Kenyan beach boys who feign kindness, even love, then pressure her for money for a variety of sick relatives and good causes. Teresa’s deep loneliness and low self-esteem impel her, even after the significant hurt she experiences when deceived early on by Mungu (Peter Kazungu), to continue her pursuit of intimacy and love where it can never be found.
I expected to hate this film and to find it exploitative, an excuse for soft porn which ignores the much higher incidence and aggressive nature of sex tourism by men. Yet Paradise: Love is an extremely complex and nuanced film, at times beautiful (look out for the cartwheeling-down-the-beach scene) and often difficult to watch.
Tiesel gives a superb performance as Teresa and the explicit scenes are never gratuitous and very far from erotic. Rather, the screenplay by Seidl and Veronika Franz evokes compassion for everyone caught up in the exploitative sex/money relationships. Power structures are not straightforward. At times Teresa and the other white European women sex tourists are clearly the exploiters, humiliating and mocking their prey; but at other times, Teresa is vulnerable to rejection, physical force and financial exploitation by young black men.
The film raises questions about power dynamics across race, class and gender; about ethics and exploitation; and about the nature of the commercial transactions and relationships which fuel tourism as a whole. It confronts all of us with our efforts at escapism, our substitutions for happiness, the ways we fill our inner voids, and the price we pay. Paradise: Love is a film about loneliness and the human condition, about ageing and the pressures on women to be youthful and beautiful.
The story is represented entirely from the point of view of the lonely woman, Teresa and this results in the one drawback of the film – the rather shallow characterisation of the Kenyan men (all played by amateur actors). We learn virtually nothing of the lives or feelings of the men whom Teresa encounters (though the awkwardness and revulsion felt by the young hotel worker who cannot bring himself to comply with Teresa’s request for oral sex is palpable).
Paradise: Love is beautifully, often shockingly, filmed, with cinematographers Ed Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler using the gorgeous backdrop of the Indian Ocean to maximum effect as a contrast to the grimness and desolation of the unfolding narrative. There are some striking shots throughout the film – images of the beach vendors standing stock still behind the area cordoned off for sunbathing Europeans who lie in an equally silent, motionless line, patrolled by an armed guard, are chilling.
From the outset, this is a film not for the faint-hearted and if scenes of nudity and sex offend you, this will definitely not be the film for you. However, if you can get beyond such reservations, Paradise: Love is an extremely thoughtful, thought-provoking film in which nothing is quite as black and white as it seems.