Paradise: Love is the first film in an ambitious trilogy by Austrian director Ulrich Seidl. Originally conceived as a three part anthology film, Seidl found himself, after a couple of years of filming and editing, with simply too much material to turn into a single feature, so instead opted to release each part as a separate film. Paradise: Love runs to around two hours, and doesn’t feel stretched or overindulgent. If the other two parts (Faith and Hope) are of a similar length and quality, he appears to have certainly made the correct decision. Even more seasoned film fans are likely to find the prospect of a six-hour anthology film a little off-putting.
Teresa is an overweight, 50-year old Austrian woman. Tired of her job working with mentally challenged people, and dealing with her daughter, a typical moody teenager, she heads to a resort in Kenya with a friend to try out sex tourism. It doesn’t take long for her to find a willing partner, but unlike her
more experienced friend, she finds it an uncomfortable proposition, lacking any confidence in her appearance. Really, she’s after more than just sex with a young Kenyan man, as the title implies.
The film is shot on location in a stark, realistic style, eschewing any camera trickery or external music. Rather than relying on static shots though, Seidl frequently follows Teresa from behind with a moving camera, giving a slight air of voyeurism to the film, though the frank sex scenes deliberately lack any eroticism. The atypical gender roles in Paradise: Love don’t necessarily add up to anything more profound on the subject, but remove an element of queasiness that would surely come with a story about male sex tourists.
Seidl doesn’t appear to be taking sides with his portrayal of this sex industry either, leaving it ambiguous as to exactly who is exploiting who. The women treat the men like objects, and openly mock them when they can’t understand German. On the other hand the men pester the women for custom everywhere they go, and are essentially, if indirectly, attempting to prostitute themselves to gain later financial rewards. It could be easy to see the women in a very negative light, particularly during a very uncomfortable, climactic hotel room-set scene. However, as Teresa, actress Margarethe Tiesel communicates a humanity and longing that’s impossible to ignore, and Seidl gains an amount of sympathy for the women by keeping them all rather pitiful.
Paradise: Love offers a sun-drenched yet bleak look at the search for love in later life; the other two films in the trilogy reportedly focus on different women from the same family as Teresa following different pursuits, on the strength of this first entry, I’ll be sure to seek them out.