Black/white, rich/poor, fat/thin, female/male, old/young — these are just a few of the dichotomies explored in the first of the ‘Paradise‘ trilogy from Austrian director Ulrich Seidl. Our chronology is a bit messed up, since we already reviewed (very favorably) the second entry “Paradise: Faith” out of Venice, but having missed ‘Love’ in Cannes, we were happy to catch up with it at a very packed screening at the Göteborg International Film Festival. Perhaps “happy” is the wrong word: “Paradise: Love” proved a frequently uncomfortable and rather overlong watch, but we still came away profoundly impressed and not a little troubled by the questions it raises, and the unflinching, uncompromising way in which it does so.
So, an occasionally punishing tale of social and personal humiliations and injustices from an Austrian director? So far, so Haneke. But if the directors share a certain detachment, Haneke’s coolness feels more mental and psychological, while Seidl here deals in the corporeal, making his film an altogether fleshier affair. We should mention that the flesh most frequently the subject of Seidl’s dispassionate but obsessive camera, is that of Margarete Tiesel as lead character Teresa, whose body, overweight, aging and overflowing in a series of unflattering bikinis and beach wear, is simply not one we’re used to seeing so graphically represented on our screens. There is no doubt that’s where some of the discomfort comes from on the part of the viewer, and it is one of the quandaries that the picture explores: if the sex scenes featured nubile, smooth-skinned pretty things engaging in this behaviour, be it degrading to one or either party, would we have such a distaste for it? At least part of our reaction to these scenes is not just intellectual or moral (because A is exploiting B, along racial, cultural or sexual lines), but visceral.
Not only that, but many of the humiliations and degradations with which we are presented are remarkable for being perpetrated on men by women. A particularly striking and gruelling (for the viewer) example is a scene in which four white women hire a black male stripper/rent boy and challenge each other to get him hard. His complicity in his own utter objectification (not just as a man, but explicitly as a black man) is degrading, but our revulsion toward the scene is also colored by the fact it’s female-on-male. We’ve seen similar or equivalent scenes of women being sexually exploited by (often older, less attractive) men elsewhere many times before, and it’s never exactly a lark, but the reversal of power here definitely adds another layer of shock value. It’s not an original point — that, even subconsciously, we hold women and men to different standards — but having it demonstrated so forcefully and at such length did give us pause.
Teresa, who works with the mentally disabled and is mother to a sullen teenage girl (who will herself be the subject of ‘Hope,’ the forthcoming concluding chapter of the ‘Paradise’ trilogy), takes a holiday to Kenya with a friend to celebrate her birthday. In the resort they meet some other white, German-speaking women who are all more or less up-front about the reason for their trip there: sex with young, athletic local Kenyans. A little squeamish at first, Teresa finds she cannot reconcile herself to the tawdriness of a purely transactional encounter, and instead hopes, futilely, for a sexual relationship not based on money. She is looking for love, of a sort, or at least to be desired by one of the smooth-talking, smooth-bodied young locals for the person she is, spare tire, sagging boobs and all. She appears blind to the hypocrisy, racism and cultural ignorance of this unattainable dream, and of her behaviour in chasing it. Gradually disillusioned, her behaviour becomes more overtly unpleasant and selfish, leading to a bitterness aimed both inwards and outwards: her birthday party culminates in two separate instances of appalling sex tourism/exploitation, before we leave her, unfulfilled and sobbing with self-pity and self-loathing, partially clad on her hotel bed.
No, we don’t like Teresa much, but she is an astonishingly real character, and first-timer Tiesel’s performance, brought out by Seidl’s part-scripted, part-improvisational process, is a small miracle. Not just because of the absolute lack of vanity or artifice in how she allows her heavy, flabby body to be shot and mauled and manhandled, but also in refusing to soften or sweeten her characterisation to make it more palatable. We don’t understand why this performance has not received more attention — whatever one’s issues with the film, her commitment is total and devastating in its unsentimentality.
“Paradise: Love” is a hard film to like and an even harder film to unpack, it’s so loaded with layers of -isms. And perhaps it doesn’t have a huge amount to contribute to the discourse around any one of the issues it touches on. Still, over its somewhat excessive running time, it’s to its credit that we found ourselves compelled to ask some uncomfortable questions not just of the characters, but of our relationship to them and their representation. Challenging, complex and frequently ugly, “Paradise: Love” is a ruthless exploration of how unlike our everyday selves we can behave when we’re “on holiday,” and how much that illuminates who we really are. [B+]