IMDB Summary: On the beaches of Kenya they’re known as “Sugar Mamas” — European women who seek out African boys selling love to earn a living…
When reading internet reviews of Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe) — the first in a trilogy of films by Ulrich Seidl, never have I been greeted with such a narrow range of perspectives. From adjectives limited to anywhere between grotesque, obese and tubby… comparisons in style between Seidl and fellow Austrian Michael Haneke… to references of the exact same quote by Werner Herzog (when describing Seidl’s 2011 documentary Animal Love). I could not help but wonder what the heck is going on? And when did pundits unite in thinking that female sex tourism in cinema died eight years ago with Laurent Cantet’s film about three middle-aged women in Heading South (Vers le sud)?
Herzog’s candid remark, conflated into a handy, overused critique isn’t worth repeating here.
Sex tourism is merely part of the canvas in Paradise: Love. For in the process, it scratches and destroys the heteronormative lenses through which we understand taboos. Exploitation, loneliness, the prison room of cultural and self-repression are themes in this Austrian drama. Cruelly soaked in the currents of colonial past; Ulrich Seidl meticulously, sincerely, unapologetically paints the portrait of Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) — a 50 year old woman living in Vienna, upper middle-class, divorced mother of a teen. Most of the film depicts events that gradually unfold during her lone vacation on the shores of Kenya.
Written by Seidl and Veronika Franz; this is a film so explicitly honest to the point of being awkward that most viewers, embarrassed for Teresa, will look away during moments of vulnerability and self-revelation. The camera of cinematographers Edward Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler stares unflinchingly during a scabrous encounter with her first companion: does he find her attractive? Isn’t she too old for him? How can he possibly bring himself to approve of the sagging upper glands, belly full of fat, soggy exterior stretched and flawed by celluloid? But most pressingly, consider the social realist tradition of framing with minimum distortion: why would you wince and look away when confronted with the consequence of body politics ?
This seventeenth feature by the controversial auteur has been slammed, shamed and shunned for being brazen in its visual audacity. Suggestions that Seidl manipulates viewers with exploitative logic are also suspect in affecting the film’s overall reception. Yet, it would be prudent to withhold from believing such. In Paradise: Love — seekers, movers, malcontent inhabitants are drenched in the rich, luxurious texture of a sunlit paradise. The narrative path however; doesn’t build up to sex, love or Maslowian truth as its payoff — lesser films would.
Besides graphic content at a running length of 120 minutes, I have no doubt this film is difficult to watch because Ulrich Seidl forces Teresa (and us) to acknowledge the naive illusions of paradisaical dreams. Yet, in the rhythmic waves that oscillate between yearning and depravity — the African rendition of La Paloma; perhaps saddened by commercial trade-offs between flesh and soul — lies a hint showing that Seidl understands the remarkable irony of what it means to be human. Dewy-eyed bourgeois privilege suffers — this is the real reason why Paradise: Love can seem so unglamorous and offensive in spite of its honesty.
[For anyone curious to know what Werner Herzog said: Google’s search results]
LANGUAGE IN GERMAN, ENGLISH & SWAHILI