Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe) (Ulrich Seidl - Austria) 120 minutes
Ulrich Seidl, a man few could accuse of having an overly indulgent view of humanity, tackles for his latest film sex tourism in Kenya (as practiced by women). Laurent Cantet has been here already with his 2005 film Heading South/Vers le sud, which was a credible enough if worthy take on the phenomenon, set at the height of Papa Doc’s terror in 1970s Haiti. Seidl is rather less interested in the phenomenon in a social sense than in how it reduces people to a brutish animalistic level. And there’s plenty of that on display in Paradise: Love; the problem is Seidl seems to be arbitrating such a little too much on both his own drama and argument. There is precious little separation of powers in Ulrich Seidl’s dialectic — the legislature and the judiciary crumple at once in the face of his own capricious executive decisions.
The centre of the drama is Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), a 50-year-old divorcee, who leaves her teenage daughter at fat camp (more of that later) when she heads off on a sand and sun holiday on the Kenyan coast, accompanied by a friend who is already a dab hand at negotiating the informal, unspoken arrangement of renumerated sex with younger African men. Teresa is initially diffident about taking advantage of the situation — as well she might be — but, this being an Ulrich Seidl film, she’s hardly going to head to Africa to sit on the beach and sun herself innocently, is she?
She soon takes up with Munga, a seemingly kindly Kenyan, who pleasures her but soon begins taking her round to meet his family at work and at play and ‘suggesting’ monetary donations for all manner of things. The Austrian women, though they are outsiders themselves, being middle-aged and mostly overweight, abandoned by the affections of their husbands and lovers, behave atrociously. They are cruel, crude and barely conceal their racism by speaking in German in front of the Kenyans they mock. With Ulrich Seidl, Michael Haneke, Markus Schleinzer, Elfriede Jelinek, few countries have been badmouthed so much by their artists as contemporary Austria has been (even if the likes of Jörg Haider, Josef Fritzl and Wolfgang Priklopil do surface from time to time, as if to prove them right). But Seidl is none too interested in the Africans either; they exist in his narrative to show the Austrians up as incorrigibly horrid and to exact increasingly venal demands themselves.
The film plods on to its inevitably bathetic conclusion, where the microbes in Seidl’s petri dish of disgusting humanity are finally given free rein. Seidl is a talented filmmaker, a brilliant framer of images and it is his assured pacing that manages to keep any interest at all for much of the film. It is his overall conception of drama that is in question — the dripping smugness and contempt is just too hard to take. He is like those people — we all know at least one — who go on Facebook to hector anyone who cares to listen about how nobody is paying any attention whatsoever to the tragedies unfolding in the world as we speak. Seidl thinks he knows something we don’t. Maybe he does, but it’s not a great deal more revelatory than the majority of people that have ever been exposed, however indirectly, to a harrowing experience or monstrous behaviour, might know. Because he is in the narrative business, he believes he is in some more privileged position regarding these uncomfortable truths. And he intends to continue as such: Paradise: Love is the first in a trilogy of (undoubtedly) misanthropic ruminations on the horror that is man. Part two will treat of Teresa’s daughter in her weight-loss retreat. Expect the dignity to be measured out in coffee spoons.