Paradise: Love


Movie review by Greg Carlson

In the opening scene of Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradise: Love,” the Austrian filmmaker presents a series of vehicle-mounted shots focused on the faces of people with developmental disabilities as they careen around in bumper cars. Smashing into one another, their expressions run the gamut of highly intensified human emotion as Seidl makes note of the fine line between pleasure and pain. The sequence suggests an entire universe or the makings of another movie, but it ends quickly and without additional comment. Among the group is teacher Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel), who subsequently packs for a Kenyan vacation that will serve as the movie’s central concern.

The topic of international sex tourism, especially from the vantage point of the middle class female consumer, is rare in mainstream narrative cinema, and the curiosity factor accompanying Teresa’s quest to locate a partner will invite contemplation from many viewers. Seidl sets the stage with economy, revealing that certain European women spend their holiday as “sugar mamas” who pursue young “beach boys” willing to provide companionship in exchange for varying degrees of compensation. Some of the transactional mechanics are filled in by the racially insensitive Inge (Inge Maux), but more memorable is the long take of sunbathing vacationers lounging on the beach while local candidates stand patient and silent behind a rope, waiting to be chosen.

The closest Seidl comes to constructing any degree of viewer sympathy for Teresa occurs when her initial partner Gabriel (Gabriel Nguma Mwarua) moves too quickly, resulting in Teresa’s sobs over the lack of emotional connection. We all know that money can’t buy love, and Seidl drives home the point as Teresa settles on Munga (Peter Kuzungu), a seemingly more sensitive lover who nonetheless expects that Teresa will open her wallet to all kinds of pressing financial matters, from medical bills to school supplies. “Paradise: Love” is at its best during these scenes, principally due to Seidl’s fogging of user and used.

One of the movie’s most provocative and dispiriting exchanges involves an aborted bacchanal in Teresa’s hotel room with a trio of friends and a hired “stripper.” Seidl escalates the humiliation, as the hapless prey is presented to Teresa as a birthday gift. What follows is a nightmarish display of soulless exploitation, as the women initiate a contest to see who can coax an erection from the young man. By this point, Seidl has made clear the irony of both words in the film’s title, reiterating that the gloomy realities of prostitution reside far from the sun-drenched and farfetched fantasies of happiness and fulfillment.

A number of critics have taken Seidl to task for withholding any degree of commiseration or understanding that might come with an exploration of the inner lives of either Teresa or the men with whom she interacts. The filmmaker deliberately distances himself and the viewer, drawing on his work as a documentarian to indicate the ways in which the exchange of money for sexual gratification parallels the socioeconomics of the global travel industry. While many would quickly describe the system in which Teresa and Munga operate as miserable, deplorable, or even morally repugnant, Seidl details the minutiae of their polluted dance. Hakuna matata.

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