The striking opening images of Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise: Love" would, in a normal movie, be disturbing enough to resonate through the entire picture. Honestly, by the time this Austrian journey through Kenyan sex tourism ended and I cried out for vat of extra strength Lysol in which to scrub my mind, they'd been shoved aside. It was only upon looking at my notes that I recalled the prologue, in which a group of the mentally disabled screamed in either glee or fear on Las Vegas-themed bumper cars, and I recognized how perfectly it summed up the film in just a few images.
In a Kubrickian group shot followed by extreme individual close-ups, mentally challenged faces howl directly in the lens. Are they exalted? Are they in pain? It's impossible to know, and the blank look of the ride technician is pure Kuleshov Effect. Is she repulsed? Is she bored? We'll soon learn she (Margarethe Tiesel) is the heroine of this film, and trying to understand just what the hell is going on inside her head is a struggle that will continue for the next two hours. Also, and perhaps more importantly, attempting to read the intention of Seidl's film will prove just as difficult.
Tiesel's Teresa, a single mother with a body type that does not conform to the standard Western notions of beauty, deposits her teenage daughter at her sister's and heads off for vacation. She's joining a friend at an African beach resort that caters to German-language tourists and appears to have a cavalier attitude to the wide array of freelance gigalos that line the beach. While they stand quietly behind a guarded rope, once someone chooses to cross that boundary (say, to swim in the ocean rather than the pool) handsome young men swoop down with a carpet bomb technique to sell trinkets.
It's the first in a series of escalating sequences of exploitation, ones that will make you scowl and wince and swap your sympathies until you wind up hating absolutely everyone on screen. In a nutshell, Teresa is quick to go with the flow and treat the Kenyan natives as objects rather than people. It starts with commenting on their skin and physique and ends with her ordering unwilling servants to perform very NC-17 sex acts at her bidding.
Along the way, though, there are numerous touching scenes where Teresa and the other older, cellulite-ridden women speak with frankness and honesty about their dissatisfaction with their bodies and how they feel they are perceived by a world conditioned by standard models of beauty. If these scenes were ripped from the rest of the film they'd be classic Dr. Phil moments, so much so that you'd root for these women to, I dunno, make a nude calendar of themselves or something.
Their direct action, however, is to engage the local, impoverished citizenry in acts of prostitution. In Teresa's case, however, it isn't that straightforward. She's delusional enough to think her first encounter is a real relationship, even after her lover starts bluntly hitting her up for money for her sister's kid, for the local school and for his sick father. Even after she discovers the sister is actually his wife she continues to believe that she may find something resembling "love" on the beach.
Seidl's presentation of the Africans is fascinating. In addition to all being trilingual, they all seem to know that merely being a body isn't going to be enough. They have to sell charm, they have to sell passion, they have to sell that they are falling in love. Their drive to squeeze every encounter for maximum profit is equally determined. We hardly see a crack in this armor and that makes it even more heartbreaking.
Seidl's scenes (shot, at least in part, by legendary DP Ed Lachman) are relentless. There are many long takes that just refuse to turn away. The resort comes off squalid, but shot differently it would be catalogue-ready. There is a lot of uncomfortable nudity, climaxing in an orgy in which four drunken, verbally abusive women challenge one another to see who can give their dancing rent boy an erection.
Is this female empowerment? If the sexes were reversed everyone involved in the making of this film would likely get arrested. If the film visited an impoverished area with white people would the imagery be this disturbing? The depth of race and gender signifiers are legion, and the frequent refrain of "Hakuna Matada" adds a creepy element of infantilization for good measure.
I spent the bulk of "Paradise Love" mimicking Edvard Munch's "The Scream." It's been a long time since I've seen such a disturbing film. Beyond the alarming imagery, the uncomfortable nature of the circular exploitation is maddening. If these people were just honest with one another from the start so much pain could have been avoided.
The ultimate question, which brings us back to the opening images, is trying to figure out Seidel's point of view. He may just be a sadistic bastard who likes to rub our face in misery. I'd like to believe that's not the case, and that he has a greater purpose in examining such a morally bankrupt scenario. Perhaps a second viewing of the film would tease this out, but, regardless of how much I admire this extraordinary film, that's a trip I'm in no hurry to take.
SCORE: 9.0 / 10
Note: "Paradise: Love" is part of a larger trilogy including "Paradise: Faith" and "Paradise: Hope," focusing on Teresa's sister and daughter during their own vacations. The other films in the series will be released later in the year.