Paradise: Love

By Patrick McGavin

Cannes Film festival (In competition)–The Austrian director Ulrich Seidl specializes in outré movies (“Dog Days”) that make most viewers feel squeamish and uncomfortable, seizing on his documentary background to explore all vagaries of human need and social transaction.

His extreme stylization and rigorous method are sometimes at sharp odds with each other. What is unmistakable is the intelligence and skill behind the filmmaking. The film’s content can be appalling and unseemly in its directness and unmediated address, but that hardly disavows the seriousness of its ideas or ideological considerations.

Seidl’s new work, “Paradise: Love,“ inverts the dynamics of his previous Cannes competition feature, “Import Export,” in dramatizing the interplay of sex, politics and empowerment from a distinctly female point of view.

Those seeking distance or decorum are best advised to look elsewhere. This is a director, after all, who once made a film about bestiality. Occasionally, Seidl loses control of the material or goes too far, but then he mitigates those concerns with striking visual compositions and deft characterization.

Like French director Laurent Cantet’s more conventionally structured, but also tighter and more enjoyable “Heading South,” this new feature, the first of a trilogy, is an unvarnished study of middle-aged women who willingly participate in the Kenyan sex trade, upending the typical presuppositions in the process.

All three planned films revolve around women from the same family; the middle piece, “Paradise: Faith,” is about a Catholic missionary worker, and the final entry, “Paradise: Hope,” deals with a teenager dispatched to a diet camp. Since critical reaction to “Paradise: Love” has been mixed-to-negative, it remains to be seen how many viewers would want to see the next two chapters.

As always, Seidl shoots his movie without a completed script. He develops his ideas, stories and characterizations through a refined improvisational structure. For the most part, he works with professional actors, or in the case of the young Kenyan sex workers, young men playing fictionalized versions of themselves.

The unsetting opening follows a group of mentally-impaired Austrian teenagers at an amusement park smashing into each other on bumper cars, the camera recording their exaggerated responses. The indirect opening leads to the kids’ supervisor, Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel), Seidl’s protagonist.

The middle-aged blonde, indefatigable, abrasive though oddly endearing, is a projection of pure id. After dropping her teenaged daughter with a relative, Teresa jets to Africa for some unorthodox adventures. She is not alone.

In a movie marked by a succession of stunning images, the most startling and surreal finds Seidl pulling the camera back and revealing a chorus line of perfectly arrayed white tourists, men and women, recumbent in lawn chairs as a disparate group of young, good-looking locals compete for their attention.

Seidl is again working with his frequent collaborator Wolfgang Thaler and his own imported star, the great American cinematographer Ed Lachman, a key figure in the American independent renaissance through the movies he made with Soderbergh, Todd Haynes and Todd Solondz.

“Paradise: Lost” is often thrilling and striking architecturally, a work composed of fixed perspectives and long, unbroken takes capturing movement, especially left to right, fluidly propelled across the horizontal frame.

As big, bold and brassy as a Broadway diva, Teresa is a woman of enormous carnal appetites. Structurally, the movie follows her interaction with three quite different men. For the Africans, Teresa is the prototypical “Sugar Mama.” In a series of erotic encounters that are alternately surreal, perverse and oddly transfixing, the movie tracks her efforts at finding happiness through unadulterated and uncomplicated sexual bliss.

That’s what she hopes, though the reality is more complicated and more disappointing, as Teresa must continually cajole, teach and instruct her pupils in the fine art of female satisfaction. This leads to some funny scenes in which she carefully instructs and demonstrates the proper and sensual way of fondling her breasts (“One at a time,” she says, “and gently, no grabbing”).

Joined by several other Austrian tourists whose lives parallel her own, especially the outrageous and scandalizing Inge (Inge Maux), Teresa pulls out all the stops, plying her male contracts with money and gifts. (In the most controversial exchange, she appears oblivious at being swindled by one client, constantly handing out money for his sister’s hospital bills or cousin’s education.)

Seidl’s prowling and sinuous camera illustrates, and Teresa’s actions reiterate that her deeper motivation is grounded in control and role playing. The movie argues that Teresa is subverting and playing around with sexual politics of patriarchy and male hierarchy. The deeper point is that of class and money, which gives her the power to control and to shape people and events to her own satisfaction.

Teresa’s actions consolidate ideas unmistakably colonialist in practice and consequence. She is ostensibly privatizing the local resources and goods and services to her own needs, creating a curiously role reversal in the process. Teresa doles out favors and throws around money–she has access to capital and has a privileged position. It provides a striking contrast to the opening back home, where her life is certainly not privileged and authoritative.

The movie’s weakest point is the portrait of the Kenyans, those hustlers and dreams otherwise deprived of any range or complexity. The movie rides on Teresa as a force of nature–needy, vulnerable, often sad, but never boring.