Teresa, a fifty-year-old Austrian mother, travels to the paradise of the beaches of Kenya, seeking out love from African boys. But she must confront the hard truth that on the beaches of Kenya, love is a business.
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This is a film about the 'students ball' in Horn, the little Austrian town Seidl grew up. The movie portraits the young débutantes as well as the local notables, all of them eagerly involved in maintaining the stiff and stifling ritual.
On the beaches of Kenya they're known as "Sugar Mamas" -- European women who seek out African boys selling love to earn a living. Teresa, a fifty-year-old Austrian and mother of a daughter entering puberty, travels to this vacation paradise. She goes from one beach boy to the next, from one disappointment to the next and finally she must recognize: On the beaches of Kenya, love is a business. Written by
When reading internet reviews of Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe) the first in a trilogy of films by Ulrich Seidl, never have I been greeted with such a narrow variety of perspectives. From adjectives limited to a spectrum anywhere between grotesque, obese and tubby, comparisons in style between Seidl and fellow Austrian Michael Haneke, to referencing the exact same quote by Werner Herzog (used in describing Seidl's 2011 documentary Animal Love), I could not help but wonder what the heck is going on? And when did pundits unite in thinking that female sex tourism in cinema would die eight years ago, after Laurent Cantet's Heading South (Vers le sud); a French film based on three middle-aged women and their search of sex and intimacy with Haitian men?
Herzog's candid remark, conflated into a handy, overused critique isn't worth repeating here.
Loneliness, exploitation, the prison room of cultural and self- repression are themes in this Austrian drama. Cruelly soaked in the warm currents of colonial past; Ulrich Seidl meticulously, sincerely, unapologetically paints the portrait of Teresa (Margarete Tiesel) a 50 year old woman living in Vienna, upper middle-class, divorced mother of a teenager. Most of the film depicts events that gradually unfold during her lone vacation on the shores of Kenya.
Sex tourism is probably only part of the canvas, though. For in the process, it scratches and destroys the heteronormative lenses with which we understand taboos. Written by Seidl and Veronika Franz; Paradise: Love is a film so explicitly honest to the point of being awkward; that most viewers, embarrassed for Teresa, will look away during moments of vulnerability and self-revelation. The camera of cinematographers Edward Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler looks on unflinchingly during a scabrous encounter with her first companion: does he find her attractive? Isn't she too old for him? Why would he want to make love to her a beached whale with sagging upper glands, belly full of fat, soggy exterior flawed with celluloid? But most pressingly, having considered the social realist tradition of framing with minimum distortion, why would anyone wince and look away when confronted with mirrors reflecting the consequence of corporeality?
This seventeenth feature by the controversial auteur has been slammed, shamed and shunned for being brazen in its visual audacity. Suggestions that Seidl manipulates viewers with exploitative logic are also suspect in affecting the film's overall reception. Yet, it would be prudent to withhold from believing such. In Paradise: Love seekers, movers, malcontent inhabitants are drenched in the rich, luxurious texture of a sunlit paradise. The narrative path however; doesn't build up to sex, love or Maslowian truth as its payoff; lesser films would.
I have no doubt this film is a difficult watch because Ulrich Seidl forces Teresa (and us) to acknowledge the naive illusions of paradisaical beauty. But in rhythmic throes that oscillate between anguish, ecstasy and depravity the African rendition of La Paloma; perhaps a bit saddened by its contrast with the ugly, ordinary trading off between flesh and soul Seidl derides the remarkable irony of what it means to be human. The dewy-eyed bourgeois privilege suffers. I suppose this is the real reason why Paradise: Love can seem so offensive and unglamorous.
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