Tuesday, May 28, 2013

'Paradise: Love' (2012) directed by Ulrich Seidl

Midway through Paradise: Love we see a man dangling a ragged hunk of meat over a crocodile pond. The reptiles hiss and snap their jaws, swarming over one another in an attempt to satisfy their hunger.  This is Paradise: Love in microcosm: the voracious desire for flesh intertwined with exploited African exoticism.  

The film is the first in iconoclastic director Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy,  three features about women from one family taking various holidays.  ‘Love’, with its focus on sex tourism will be followed by ‘Faith’, looking at the journey of a Catholic missionary and ‘Hope’, about a diet camp for teenagers.

In the opening scenes Seidl quickly establishes our protagonist Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) as both recognisable and likeable in a classically mumsy sort of way, spending her days working with disabled children and fussing over her untidy teenage daughter at home.  We meet her as she’s making the final preparations to go on holiday, she drops off her daughter and cat with a neighbour and leaves grey, washed out Austria behind for the sun soaked beaches and swaying palm trees of Kenya.  

Initially this appears to be a pretty average holiday.  She sips brightly coloured cocktails, gossips with her fellow holidaymakers and basks in the blazing African sun.  So far, so typical.  But ni in background we see the local men.  They’re separated from the holidaymakers by a rope, proudly displaying their muscles and standing to attention, coolly observing the holiday-makers.  We soon realise that Teresa isn’t here for souvenirs and sunbathing; she’s here for sex.  For the rest of the film we will witness Teresa purge herself of shyness, gradually transforming into an assertive sexual predator as she learns to exploit the power dynamic between white tourists and black locals.

The complexity of these shifting power dynamics drives Paradise: Love, the prostitution at the film’s core providing a cleverly layered metaphor for the audience to get its teeth into. Seidl carefully constructs his narrative in such a way that our sympathies repeatedly shift between the tourists and the locals.  For example, in some scenes we feel intense empathy for the Kenyan men who are utterly objectified and sexually humiliated by the tourists, yet in others we see them systematically sucking Teresa’s wallet dry with a series of bare-faced lies about sick family members. Though the ambiguity on display is strikingly elaborate it’s important not to mistake this for philosophical wishy-washiness. The moral compass of the characters may be constantly in motion, but the film has a laser-like focus on criticising imperialist colonial thinking and the condescending exoticisation of Africa.

Throughout the film, the composition of the shots highlight the division between the Disneyfied Kenya that the tourists are being sold and the impoverished reality.  In repeated wide shots we see tourists and locals opposing each other on either side of the frame.  These are powerful images; contrasting a wobbling mass of pink, neon clad femininity with taut, muscled, fat-free black masculinity.  

Though we see the locals prostitute themselves, what’s more subtly implied is the prostitution of Kenya, and by extension the entirety of sub-Saharan Africa.  Simply to scrape by the locals are forced to not only humiliate themselves but also their cultures to satisfy the touristic whims of these waddling, dimwitted, hedonistic tourists.  From the moment Teresa steps off the plane, she enters a carefully constructed illusion.  On the bus to the hotel friendly young men with beaming smiles summarise the Kenyan way of life as “Hakuna Matata!”, which as The Lion King informed us, means no worries for the rest of your days.  As this is explained to the smiling and excited Teresa, we cut to the dusty world outside the bus, strewn with heaps of burning rubbish and piles of bleached rubble.

What’s bizarre is that everyone accepts this as an illusion except Teresa, who’s slightly too gullible.  She takes everything at face value, to the extent of believing that a young male African prostitute has fallen head over heels in love with her.   Margarete Tiesel has to walk a tightrope in this performance, simultaneously appearing sympathetic whilst acting incredibly stupidly and eventually cruelly.  She is utterly spellbinding in the impossibly intimate, naturalistic bedroom scenes.  These are shot in long takes, up to 6 or 7 minutes in length, a static camera pointed at the bed voyeuristically observing two people communicating their desires in broken German and English.  These scenes appear improvised, and they’re the highpoint of the film.  Here, before our very eyes, we see Teresa becoming warped and mutated by her role as a white tourist outsider.

That this transformation is so dramatically powerful is why Paradise: Love works so well.  Every interaction within the film has European colonialist history weighing down upon it.  Tourists and locals alike subconsciously begin to reflect the trauma that Africa was subjected to in Europe’s mad rush for resources both mineral and human.  Though unspoken, the spectre of slavery haunts the film as Teresa and her friends casually reduce the Africans around them to the status of objects, human dildos on which they can work out their pent-up sexual frustrations.

The banality and mundane internal life of Teresa is the cherry on the cake, her very averageness crucial to the message. There is no intentional evil in her, she could be anyone’s mother or friend.  What Seidl implies is that the crimes of our ancestors reverberate in every interaction between European tourist and African local.  We may consider ourselves enlightened beings, the past firmly behind us, but the foundations of our wealth and geopolitical importance are sunk deep in African blood.  

Paradise: Love is aesthetically beautiful, astoundingly acted and satisfyingly morally complex.  If Seidl can sustain this momentum throughout the rest of his Paradise trilogy it’ll be a towering achievement in cinema.


Paradise: Love is on general release from June 14.

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