Kenya is the elsewhere of choice for disillusioned white European females of a certain age to feel wanted, or at least touched, in Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love. They arrive by the busload and are welcomed by the hyper-exoticized fantasy of an Africa full of locals who chant like happy savages and young black boys who smell like coconut, have beautiful lips, and, hilariously, cannot properly pronounce “Speckschwarte.” Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), a 50-year-old Austrian tourist, is immediately seduced by this libidinal safari, overwhelmed by the sexual possibilities tucked away from the “real world,” like a young gay boy lost/found in the labyrinths of his first bathhouse experience. But the spectacle of perfectly chiseled black bodies readily available for degustation is progressively exposed as the mere mirage of a rather ugly system, or scam, in which financial demands masquerade as promises of love—an African exclusivity, of course.
It’s easy to recognize the extortion-like strategy of the locals who approach Teresa as the affective exception to aggressive beach vendors. They act as though they see beyond her color, her age, her flab (she tells her friend she wants someone to look beyond “the wrinkles and the fat ass”), only to coerce her to give money to some poor sister they claim they have, the sister’s sick baby, some cousin who was in an accident, and so on. But Teresa and her fellow tourists also have their own dehumanizing strategies, as they take turns objectifying, mocking, and exploiting the locals like disposable dildos. And if Teresa begins her trip as a naïve gay boy at the bathhouse for the first time would, ignorant of the cruel politics of its space, she quickly masters the tricks of the trade. Increasingly aware of what’s really at stake in her daily sexual encounters with different locals, aware of her own status as a fetish object, she asks, “How many white women have been in this bed?” And, “Have you ever gone with a white lady?” And, “Do you wanna touch a white lady?” And, “Do you wanna kiss the white lady?”
The white-cougar-seeks-black-boy phenomenon has been explored before in Laurent Cantet’s Heading South. And it’s impossible not to think, with fondness, of Charlotte Rampling’s Ellen’s precarious mastering of the similar dynamic in Haiti as we watch Teresa navigate her own heavenly hell: She knows it’s all a transaction, but still, Paradise: Love is surprisingly less nuanced, even if less dramatic, than Cantet’s film, as it often seems more intent on spelling out its awareness of the politics involved than in lingering on the aching human engaged in the libidinal transactions. The dialogue sometimes rings forced (one white woman says, “The locals like everything that’s natural and untamed”), and the narrative too episodic, even rushed in its desire to establish its point.
As Teresa’s predicament becomes apparent, even obvious, and Seidl simply goes through the motions in a somewhat predictable manner, you may find yourself yearning for the organic aimlessness of the characters in the director’s masterful Import/Export. You may also long for a close-up to evoke what it would feel like to be stuck in Teresa’s, or one of the boys’, impossible situation. We only actually see this exploration of the micro-ness of affect in a scene where one of the local boys takes Teresa to his house and, while he goes to get a drink, she checks herself in the mirror, spritzing her under arms and vagina with some perfume. It echoes Central Station’s best scene, when Fernanda Montenegro meets a stranger at a truck stop, reawakening her desire to be wanted as a body again, as she borrows a stranger’s lipstick in the public restroom and stares in the mirror, “beyond the wrinkles and the fat ass.”