“Love has no limits.” Considering the source, a Kenyan “beach boy” (native love object) who’s milking his European sugar mama for all she’s worth, that’s a rather specious claim. In Paradise: Love, the first film in a projected trilogy by Austrian provocateur Ulrich Seidl, love is bounded on all sides by greed, lust, and dissimulation. Only with Seidl, exploitation is a two-way street. Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) is a middle-aged hausfrau on holiday in sun-drenched Africa. Ostensibly resort-bound, Teresa has come to Kenya with more in mind than palm wine and tuk-tuk rides. During the bus ride to their accommodations, a native guide drills vacationers on the necessary vocabulary: “Jambo!” the rows of pasty tourists dutifully repeat. “Hakuna matata means ‘no problem.’ Here Africa, no problem!” You can’t help but imagine the insistent recurrence of this mantra was intended by Seidl as a thumb in the eye to Disney’s The Lion King and its pandering cultural politics.
Pre-vacation scenes introduce Teresa as a controlling neat-freak, disconnected from her texting-crazed daughter and even more anal-retentive sister. The opening “Seidl tableau” (a self-applied epithet) depicts her standing in the midst of a garish, neon-lit bumper car ride where all the drivers are mentally handicapped. As their driving grows increasingly frenzied and aggressive, Teresa cautions them, “Don’t get too wild.” It’s the perfect encapsulation of the rest of the film. The largest of many ironies shot throughout is that, though Teresa herself has come to Africa as a sort of German Gone Wild, she takes a patronizing, hectoring tone with the men she attempts to initiate into her very specific and highly detailed erotic needs. Like most travelers lured by prefab exoticism, Teresa really just wants to surround herself with compatriots, and so a gaggle of Austrian women at the resort pass their days tittering at the natives’ pidgin German, claiming to be unable to tell them apart other than by their cock size, and glibly nicknaming their barman “Uncle Ben.” Their nights, however, are otherwise occupied.
After several thwarted attempts to find the right beach boy, Teresa takes up with Munga (Peter Kuzunga), a dreadlocked lothario who fends off the advances of over-eager bauble peddlers under the guise of sympathetic understanding. Munga preaches love unlimited and guides Teresa around indigenous neighborhoods, pointing out ubiquitous poverty and inequity all the better to guilt-trip Teresa into payment. True to that old saw, a fool and her money are soon parted, but not before the devoutly wished consummation. Shown sprawled post-coitus under Munga’s mosquito netting like the Venus of Willendorf, Teresa amuses herself by taking souvenir snapshots of Munga’s schlong while he sleeps.
Not one to be daunted by their relationship’s eventual failure, Teresa perseveres, if you want to call it that, going on apace to other flings. Happiness, though, can’t be bought, no matter how high the price. The finale reduces Teresa’s series of transactions to its lowest-common denominator as the German women buy her a beach boy, Moussa, for her birthday. “He’s all yours from head to cock!” one of the women crows. His prick wrapped in pink ribbon, Moussa prances around doing a “native dance.” As if this weren’t contemptible enough, the women turn getting him hard into a little game, but when none of them can manage it, despite some rather graphically depicted foreplay, they give Moussa the boot. Beneath even the bottom of that particular barrel comes Teresa’s final encounter with Josphat, none other than “Uncle Ben” himself, who’s similarly dismissed because he finds the prospect of cunnilingus distasteful.
Though these brief encounters become a trifle repetitive, Seidl uses them to emphasize various aspects of the hypocrisy and prejudice he so ruthlessly, yet justifiably, lays bare. Despite accusations of empty provocation often leveled against Seidl, there’s more going on here than just shock tactics. The mix of actors and nonprofessionals, the improvisatory nature of the script, the location setting, all lend an aura of documentary veracity, however illusory, to the proceedings. In fact, Seidl’s early films were all documentaries, albeit ones that, like Seidl admirer Werner Herzog’s, contain almost equal measures fiction and nonfiction. Furthermore, Teresa’s character is drawn with some nuance. Though, truth be told, hers is the only character that’s treated as more than a caricature. And then there are Paradise: Love’s many technical virtues. The cinematography, by longtime Seidl collaborator Wolfgang Thaler, in tandem with Ed Lachman, is particularly fine. Witness the film’s stunning final shot is a gorgeous composition in depth: Three beach boys turn cartwheels in the foreground, while Teresa desultorily wanders along in the middle ground, and in the background, like some Impressionist seascape, untenanted boats drift under lowering skies.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 16—27.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.