Two days after watching Michael Haneke’s staggering Amour, I checked in with Austria’s other tyrannous filmmaker Ulrich Seidl and his latest movie Paradise: Love (or, Paradies Liebe, in Austrian-German). Nominated for the Palme D’or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (where it actually lost out to Amour), it’s the first part of a trilogy looking at the despicable sides of human nature (the following two parts will be screened at festivals in 2013).
Just like his other previous works in documentary (Jesus, You Know) and fiction (Dog Days), Love is an infuriating film; whereby we have no idea where the story is going, and seemingly Seidl doesn’t have a clue either. Shot in his trademark static mid shots, with copious amounts of skin on show, it’s paradoxically beautiful and grotesque. Like a Lucian Freud painting with just as much of his grandfather’s’ psychoanalytical subtext, to boot.
Margarete Tiesel plays Teresa, a middle aged single parent living in drab suburban Vienna. The first scene sees her smiling from a distance as she watches a class of disabled children fumble-play on a bumper car track. It’s a harrowing, typically nasty opening, and really sets the film off in mean spirited territory, with Seidl doing his token unflinching exploitation gimmick.
From here, Teresa decides to leave her daughter behind at fat camp and flee to Kenya for a paradisiac holiday. Meeting up with her Austrian expat friend (Inge Maux), the pair talk in typically colonialist terms about African culture and black men’s genitalia. Later, on her own, she’s constantly harangued by the pushy salesmen on the beachfront, trying to sell her homemade necklaces and pearls at tourist prices. Although she’s reluctant to purchase their crap, she willingly buys into the perilous sex tourism trade, first as a customer, and later as one of it’s scammed victims. Bleak in tone, yet idyllically colourful in palette, the proceeding 90 minutes follows a series of degradations Teresa must go through in her troubled pursuit for paradise.
Similarly to his other work, flesh and body politics play a central role to the narrative, character dynamics and control of the movie. Wandering around in flip flops and skimpy bathing suits, Teresa’s slightly rotund exterior is used to exaggerate the character’s wealth, decadence and presumed dominance over the comparatively slight, underfed and suffering Kenyans. It’s a sentiment made painfully clear in one scene where Teresa partakes in an orgy of sorts where three other overweight German/Austrian women force a lean black Kenyan man to perform for their pleasure, and much to his embarrassment.
Whilst this may be the most palatable of Seidl’s fiction films, it’s certainly not an easy watch. At an excessive two hours, he wallows for too long in the audiences’ discomfort without ever given us a worthwhile pay-off. Whilst the landscape is filmed beautifully by regular cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler, this bastardised version of Shirley Valentine is a pretty loveless film experience.