By Don Simpson | August 5, 2013
Director: Ulrich Seidl
Writers: Ulrich Seidl, Veronika Franz
Starring: Margarete Tiesel, Peter Kazungu, Inge Maux, Dunja Sowinetz, Helen Brugat, Gabriel Mwarua, Carlos Mkutano
From the opening scene of Paradise: Love, writer-director Ulrich Seidl pushes the audience’s tolerance for discomforting imagery. Not that watching a group of mentally disabled riding around in bumper cars at an amusement park is usually all that unsettling, but it is the uncertainty of the meaning and purpose of the scene that makes the experience uncomfortable. It is never clear whether the people in the bumper cars are enjoying the experience or terrified out of their wits; their facial expressions and screams could easily be interpreted either way. Their chaperone Teresa’s (Margarethe Tiesel) feelings about the event are equally blurred, as her gaze appears to be ambivalently disconnected from the people she is supposed to be caring for.
Besides playing the seemingly reluctant chaperone for the mentally disabled, Teresa is the single mother of a grumpy teenage daughter. It is difficult not to read her body type as a clear sign that Teresa has given up on life. The chances that Teresa will ever have someone fall in love with her are probably pretty slim, unless she began to pay for affection; but a woman of Teresa’s age doing such a thing in Austria would obviously be frowned upon, so she travels to a Kenyan beach resort that is surrounded by young male prostitutes who are willing to do just about anything to support their families.
There is a clear line that the Kenyan natives cannot cross, which gives the Western tourists the sense of privacy and safety that they are paying for; but when that line is crossed, the young men swarm the bulbous Austrian women like rabid mosquitoes. A few of them are able to intuit that Teresa is looking for love, so they slip right into playing the role of her virile young suitors. Since Teresa’s own daughter does not abide by her commands, it seems pretty safe to say that this is the first time in Teresa’s life that she has ever felt in control of another human being. While she might occasionally seem to believe to be falling in love with these young men, Teresa grows increasingly power hungry. Unabashedly enamored by their exotic skin color, muscular bodies and dance moves, these young men are nothing more than mere sex objects to Teresa. They are her slaves in more than the rhetorical sense.
Despite its profundity, Paradise: Love is as disconcerting of a viewing experience as I have ever endured. Using the opening scene as a boilerplate, Seidl repeatedly presents images that — in theory — should not be disturbing; but viewing the sexual activities through the lens of racial and class exploitation, the scenes are repulsive and nauseating. That, of course, begs the all important question: Would our reaction be any different if the characters’ races, genders and/or ages were swapped? Personally, I find the economic exploitation of third world nations by the Western world (slyly accented by the occasional refrain of “Hakuna Matada”) to be the most disturbing element of Paradise: Love.
Seidl does quite a commendable job of presenting the Kenyans as intelligent, rational and civil human beings. Most of the Kenyans are trilingual; the Austrians, however, prefer to only speak German (but will muddle their way through English when forced) and make no effort to learn the native tongue of their Kenyan lovers. Their motivations may never become crystal clear, but the Austrians are thoroughly critiqued and criticized throughout Paradise: Love, as if Seidl is attempting to apologize for their actions. Sure, it will almost certainly make you avert your eyes and/or scream, but Paradise: Love is a film that should be experienced by everyone. If anything, it will provide you with a hefty enough dose of white guilt to haunt you for years to come.