Paradise: Love
aka Paradies: Liebe
First screened in October 2012
Director: Ulrich Seidl. Cast: Margarethe Tiesel, Peter Kazungu, Inge Maux, Gabriel Nguma Mwarua, Carlos Mkutano, Josphat Hamisi, Dunja Sowinetz, Helen Brugat. Screenplay: Ulrich Seidl and Veronika Franz.
Twitter Capsule: Pitiless camera, yes, but surprisingly rich in empathy and thought. Women keep teaching men how to be better liars.

Photo © 2012 Ulrich Seidl Filmproduktion GmbH, © 2013 Strand Releasing
I don't think anyone will ever file a funnier tweet from a film festival than Mike D'Angelo did from Cannes 2011 when he saw the Austrian feature Michael, about a pedophile who kidnaps a young boy and keeps him locked in his basement. "Seriously, WHAT is WRONG with AUSTRIA??" Mike wrote. I'm forced to echo his sentiment, at least insofar as I don't think I've ever seen an Austrian film that wasn't about a labor camp, incest, infanticide, or sadomasochistic violence, and sometimes more than one of these at once. Cinematic crown prince Michael Haneke is winning credit for having "softened" with this spring's Cannes champ Amour, which apparently deploys Haneke's usual gifts with actors and camera to the end of helping us watch two octogenarians die together. So, sure, the movie might be called Paradise: Love, but it's a geocultural certainty that the film is neither about paradise nor about love.

Unless, of course, it is. Granted, Ulrich Seidl (Dog Days, Import/Export), a vicious provocateur even by Austrian standards, films in the kinds of fixed-camera, symmetrical long shots that always prepare arthouse audiences for a primer in deconstructed misanthropy. Some will argue that the misanthropy hasn't even been deconstructed here, as zaftig, middle-aged Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) leaves her Alpine homeland and lands in Kenya for a vacation. Standing stout beneath a turqouise sky both beautiful and freezing, Teresa settles on a beach where she can face out into azure water to her heart's content. In case she's seeking other kinds of contentment, a loosely scattered squadron of Kenyan men stand rigidly at attention at or near the waterline, mutely advertising their availability to the white women slumbering or sipping drinks on the sand. Seidl doesn't divulge the exact moments when Teresa recognizes, accepts, and embraces this local economy of cross-racial, cross-generational sex work, and the actress keeps us guessing, too. Teresa may have known what she was in for from the moment she deposited her daughter at a relative's place for an extended stay, or she may intuit it from the candidly ceremonial postures that the African men adopt as they invite the European women to gaze upon them. She acts shocked when a fellow patron of longer standing (charismatically crude Inge Maux) details the finer points of these arrangements, and of the erotic pleasures to be found with the slender, well-muscled men around them. But how shocked is Teresa? And how sincere or poignant or ridiculous is it when she elects to go hunting not for sex but for love?

Everything about Paradise: Love, from its pitiless camera to its unfriendly auteur, lays the groundwork for Teresa's abject humiliation. For that reason, one of this remarkable film's strengths is how careful it is to explore ambiguities and sustain real empathies within a scenario that was always going to move in predictable directions. Yes, Teresa coaxes her amiable partner Mungu (a very deft Peter Kazungu) into something more like a courtship than an unapologetic boudoir errand, and yes she is shocked, shocked, when it turns out that smiling, sweet, attentive Mungu may have his eyes on her pocketbook. And yes, we both feel for Teresa against her growing disenchantment while asking what else she could possibly have expected. For all his cold, perpendicular inclinations with framing and light, Seidl really is interested in seeing these characters literally and figuratively from multiple angles. He certainly cajoles a richer, more challenging performance out of Tiesel than an impersonation of a misguided naïf that we can't help feeling a bit bad for.

What Seidl and his actors instead achieve is a kind of seminar in how the women actively teach the men to lie to them. What play initially as scenes where Teresa teaches Mungu to make love ot her more slowly, kindly, and more patiently feel in retrospect—or maybe even simultaneously—like scenes where Teresa teaches her African protégé to construct the kind of disingenuous chivalry that will sucker her so badly. The film is not premised on a blunt reveal of what's "really" happening but a constant cycle of reciprocal dissembling: Teresa pretends to be innocent and guileless just as Mungu projects a kind of motive-less warmth. Recriminations follow, but they do not exhaust the film's conclusion, in which a newly-formed buddy group of women continue to invite new men back to their suite even after there can be no confusion about how power, seduction, and prevarication are operating. Seidl radically distends a long sequence in which another Kenyan man dances and strips for these four Austrian epicureans—blatantly testing the viewer's patience, as austere Continental filmmakers often like to do, but also exposing the devil's knot of elation, inertia, and disillusion that underlies all these encounters, even when they seem most blissful or most brutal at the surface.

All of that is to say, Paradise: Love features pockets of sweetness even by its second half, when a simpler movie would spin its wheels in grim, one-dimensional pronouncement. Episodes in the script have been distilled into the barest bones of incident and dialogue without becoming simple. A long dialogue scene where Teresa keeps walking out into the ocean, further and further away from yet another Kenyan man imploring her to come close, is a heartbreaking snapshot of a woman trapped, a troubling portrait of a woman who's not willing to pay for the ride she's elected to take, and a tantalizing test of the audience's own conviction that this man could not possibly intend something as simple and kind as a body to lean against while a miserable Teresa negotiates the sea's sharp floor. Several scenes, to include virtually every duet between the cagey Mungu and the multi-dimensional Teresa, thrive on these kinds of ironies, which rarely feel rhetorical. It is not clear what the audience ought to decide or to feel, nor is it clear that we know more about what's happening than the allegedly feckless heroine does. The film's judgments feel qualified and even backgrounded to me, though I'm sure other viewers will find it more caustic. I had a different sense of Teresa every few scenes, and of what Paradise: Love was about. It's much richer than some implacable dig into the mineshafts of human weakness, which makes it one small step for Austrian cinema, one giant leap for a festival filmgoer looking for more than a bitter lecture. Grade: A–

(in October 2012: B+)

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