A short form synopsis of Ulrich Seidl's Paradise: Love might have you thinking this was another glorious examination of middle-aged "cougar" mentality, where Mrs. Robinson seduces her way into the hearts and pants of eager young studs. Much like 2006's Heading South with Charlotte Rampling and Cara Seymour, Seidl's film takes an ugly, unflinching look at the culture of well-off Caucasian women who journey to third-world countries to have sex with virile black men.
Seidl, who began his career in the world of documentary, keeps us at a distance in chronicling the casual racism and mutual abuse inherent in the arrangement. But unlike Heading South, in which the women were fully aware of their actions and reveled in it, it's hard to tell whether we should sympathize, despise, or pity the lead character in Paradise: Love. Margarethe Tiesel plays Teresa, an overweight, frumpy Austrian divorcee who drops her daughter off at a weight loss camp, then hops a plane to a Kenyan resort. Here the men literally stand around on the beach shores waiting for the attention, and they usually get it. A friend of Teresa's, who openly refers to herself as ugly and desperate, talks of how sex is everywhere for the taking. She introduces Teresa to a pack of aggressive, pushy young men, introducing one as her "boyfriend" and casually revealing that she had just bought him a new motorcycle. The boys don't really seem to care, barely saying anything other than "yes" and "I love you".
Somehow Teresa manages to miss how the arrangement works, either out of extreme loneliness or ignorance. As she wades through the non-stop harassment of the natives seeking her attention, a simple kindness by one man leads to an awkward attempt at sex in a dirty hotel room. When that ends in disaster, she meets an equally charming young man named Mungu, and it goes much better. The facade that all parties seem to agree on is that this is a real, loving relationship. That's part of the fun. It's like baseball fantasy camp for the sex-starved, and all of these trysts end the same way with the guy begging for money. Not for himself, of course, because that would be too obvious. But Teresa wants to believe it is real, even though all clues point to the contrary. The cycle of humiliation continues on until it's too obvious to ignore, but by then we've lost any sympathy for her plight.
Those who have seen Seidl previous work, in particular the brutal Import/Export, won't be surprised that there are more than a few protracted scenes so uncomfortable they're likely to send some scurrying for the exits. Here the most disturbing involves a skinny, potentially stoned young black man dancing around a hotel room while Teresa and her drunken friends degrade him in various, unspeakable ways. Teresa eagerly engages in the disgusting display, while at the same time expressing disappointment that she couldn't get him erect. Moments like that add a touch of poignancy to the character, but those soft moments are blunted by her glaring stupidity and, as we see in the final act, fit of righteous indignation.
Seidl makes sure to highlight every grotesque detail, putting the ugliness right in our faces so it's inescapable. But he also catches scenes of exquisite beauty and shocking surrealism. Tiesel deserves credit for her willingness to bear all; scars, wrinkles, and everything in the sagging package. But more than just the physical courage she shows, it's her decision to not use that to play on our sympathies that truly wins us over.
The first part of a planned trilogy, with one of the other installments following Teresa's daughter at fat camp, Seidl has given us a dirty and honest look at the life of a sad woman obsessively fulfilling her need for emotional intimacy.