Ulrich Seidl’s “Paradise: Love” is hardly the first film to explore the world of wealthy women and the young studs who service them; it’s not even the first to do it in a sex-tourism context, having been beaten to the punch by 2006’s “Heading South.” But it sure as hell is the dirtiest. Full of explicit sex that will restrict it to niche distribution in only the most tolerant territories, it challenges auds throughout on a multitude of levels. Repulsive and sublimely beautiful, arguably celebratory and damning of its characters, it’s hideous and masterful all at once, “Salo” with sunburn.
Reactions were deeply divided after the first press screening in Cannes, but even the pic’s most ardent supporters largely agreed that “Paradise: Love” feels longer than its 120-minute running time, especially in the second hour. The dragginess may partly be the result of a tortuous post-production process, when the decision was made to split into three separate films what was supposed to be one long narrative that interlinks stories of three Austrian women. The next two films will be about, respectively, a Catholic missionary (“Paradise: Faith”) and a young girl at diet camp (“Paradise: Hope”).
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Sticking to his opaque M.O. (apparent in his features “Dog Days” and “Import/Export,” as well as his many docus), Seidl refrains from passing overt moral judgment on his characters. But it feels as though he can’t bear to look away from what they get up to, or to forsake hard-won footage from what was reportedly a difficult shoot.
A visually bravura opening sequence, completely extraneous to the rest of the film, features seemingly single protagonist Teresa (legit thesp Margarethe Tiesel, fearless) overseeing a gaggle of people with Down Syndrome riding bumper cars in Austria. Thereafter, Teresa drops off her mopey tween daughter (Melanie Lenz), in the ‘burbs with her sister (Maria Hofstaetter, “Import/Export”) and heads to a Kenyan resort that seems to cater particularly to ladies of a certain age.
There, Teresa befriends another Austrian woman (Inge Maux), who enthusiastically extols the pleasures of young African men’s flesh. Judging by the frequent tableau shots of young men patiently, eerily waiting on the beach, there’s no shortage of guys here willing to offer goods for sale, be they trinkets or their own bodies.
At first hesitant, and adamant that she’s looking for a relationship at least, Teresa beds a sexually aggressive young man, Gabriel (Gabriel Nguma Mwarua), then the mellower Munga (Peter Kazungu). Although she’s initially won over by Munga’s show of reticence and declarations of ardor, after some time (the holiday seems to last for weeks), his requests for money to help his impoverished family become more brazenly avaricious. Eventually, Teresa and her friends stop pretending that what they’re doing is anything other than paying for sex, culminating in a grueling sequence in which her friends (Dunja Sowinetz, Helen Brugat and Maux) hire a male stripper/hustler (Anderson Mutisya) to celebrate Teresa’s birthday.
Pic puts the women’s flesh, some of it very abundant, right out on display, daring viewers to recoil from their obesity. In a cleverly pre-emptive scene (largely improvised, as are all the sequences here), the women themselves discuss their own disgust with their bodies, decrying their fat, their troublesome pubic hair and the inexorable effects of age and gravity.
What’s attractive about the Kenyan men is not just their beautiful, athletic bodies, but their willingness to make these women feel desirable once again. As the film progresses, Teresa’s dresses get shorter, and she fairly crackles with self-confident erotic energy. In one cheeky composition, Seidl even arranges Tiesel in a post-coital pose that evokes Manet’s painting “Olympia.”
What’s in play here is not some facile celebration of middle-aged female desire. The Austrian women’s empowerment is still, like all sex for hire, ultimately about power, specifically financial power, and as such forms a microcosm of international relations. This is post-colonialism in all its filthy glory, mutual exploitation that debases all involved.
Some will feel troubled that we’re given no access to any of the Africans’ inner thoughts; they’re all just out for a buck, any way they can make it. But it’s perhaps admirable that Seidl doesn’t give them overwrought speeches to justify their actions; the grinding poverty they live in is right there onscreen for anyone to see, and in their own way, they’re more honest than the Europeans they service. (The Kenyan actors here are non-pros whose roles are informed by firsthand experience.)
Lensed by Seidl’s longstanding collaborator Wolfgang Thaler as well as Ed Lachman (who worked with Seidl on “Import/Export”), the pic interlaces exquisitely composed static shots — with the figures placed just so in the lower half of the frame, crowned by lots of space overhead — and sinuous Steadicam work. The soundtrack is also a treat, featuring a mix of Eurodisco and African pop music, always sourced by the action.