Michael Haneke has made a career out of misanthropic, if brilliant grumpiness, yet it seems fellow Austrian director Ulrich Seidl is making a good fist of competing for him in the line of stern, unflinching gazes at the darker side of humanity. Import/Export screened at the London Film Festival back in 2007 and featured scenes of humiliation and exploitation, and Seidl returns this year with the first part of a projected trilogy, Paradise: Love (Paradies: Liebe, 2012), to be followed by Paradise: Hope and Paradise: Faith. Margarete Tiesel stars as Teresa, a German house frau on a trip to Kenya, where the main attractions are the Kenyan men who loiter on the beach, on the other side of a strictly patrolled demarcation line.
These men sell the white women trinkets, but Teresa’s friend Teresas (Inge Maux) soon informs her that other things can be bought as well. Teresa has a young black man who dances for her, who she has taught to say the German equivalent of ‘sexy beast’ much to their mutual amusement. Teresa herself is insecure and unsure of the idea, but after a false start she begins to get a taste for it.
There is a lot to despise in the cycle of exploitation that we see enacted in Paradise: Love, and Seidl certainly is neither subtle nor brief in making his points. However, the performances of all the actors are genuine and sympathy is shared. These overweight, saggy, self-conscious and often unhappy women have spent their life in the service of others. Teresa and co (however disingenuously) feel that they are offering something to the black men – the exotic.
The dynamics of poverty, alienation and the differing modes and psychologies of exploitation gradually become apparent, even then it is unclear who exactly is doing the exploiting. The white women, with their ‘First World problems’, might seem contemptible, yet Seidl gives them a rationale and motivation. They have never got what they wanted, and now that they have the opportunity to get it, they don’t know how to do so gracefully or with sympathy. There is no doubt that Paradise: Love immerses you in the humiliation and tawdriness rather than hinting at it, but isn’t that itself a valid artistic choice?
Paradise: Love opens with a scene which perfectly sums up the contradictions in Seidl’s own methods. We see a party of Down’s syndrome patients sitting patiently in dodgem cars. As the scene goes on at length, it is tempting to find the reactions funny, which is immediately followed by a sense of guilt. The scene stands as a symbol for our concepts of paradise – what we think we want makes us buffoonish, traps us, frightens us and puts us in danger, but the problem is not ours. If Seidl hates anything, it is the systemic failures of the world which make people hateful and not the people they really are.
The 56th BFI London Film Festival runs from 10-21 October. For more of our LFF coverage, simply follow this link.