Cannes Review: ‘Paradise: Love’ Is Grotesque and Too Openly Provocative For Its Own Good

By  · Published on May 17th, 2012

Those of you who read my review of Sleeping Beauty at last year’s festival might remember that I said the film was probably the least sexual film I had ever seen, despite its boob count. I would hereby like to categorically and unreservedly retract that statement in full.

Because I have just seen Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Love, a two-hour-long spectacle of supposedly renewed self-discovery through sex tourism that spends all together too much time fascinated with its exotic subjects (both European and African) and too little time asking any of the pressing questions it brings up. The film follows Anna Maria (Margarethe Tiesel), an Austrian single mother, the wrong side of fifty and in a miserable floundering rut that she uses as her excuse to take a solo trip to Kenya in search of good times – a concept those familiar with Seidl would be forgiven for thinking he wouldn’t have any concept of.

She is a sex tourist, willing to open herself to the possibilities suggested by the Kenyan Beach Boys – not an African tribute band, but a group of young men who sell themselves to wealthy white women, and the film on at least the most primitive level is an excuse to chart her awkward sexy misadventures.

But then I suppose that isn’t really the point of Paradise: Love – instead of the explorative sexual journey of some older, less conventionally beautiful women in Kenya, and an intelligent portrait of the seedy sub-culture of Beach Boys and Sugar Mamas, the film is little more than a provocative circus side-show. It is a comedy of the grotesque that leaves a lasting and bitter after-taste, and which is irresponsible when given delicate matters to deal with, as it flirts with a politicized commentary of that sub-culture without ever having the decency to follow through with even a subconscious criticism.

While the director will no doubt point at his intention to offer a pure representation of the truth, molded by his usual over-riding pessimistic nature – hence his decision to meld documentary film-making techniques with fictional mechanics, his sequences are about as truthful as those staged for Jersey Shore. Yes, these things are happening, but as a conscientious filmmaker there should be a better way to show them than simply advancing the worst parts for entertainment purposes?

The whole film boils down to a perverse presentation of the exotic: it is not openly racist per se (though there are some extremely questionable moments), but its fascination with the exotic, and with difference is difficult to marry up with any artistic agenda. The women involved are overly sexualized, and take off their clothes so we can “enjoy” the experience of their difference in terms of conventional beauty, and it’s hard not to take their feverish fascination with the Kenyan locals – and very specifically their bodies, and the differences involved as anything but self-conscious provocation.

Seidl doesn’t want us to enjoy this film any more than his other, far grimmer projects: he has created a world in which every human has the capacity for despicable behavior and ideologies, populated by grotesques and drenched in bodily fluids, and then sat back to watch our repulsion. But this sort of filmmaking can only cover so many tracks, and hiding behind quasi-intellectual agendas in order to make needlessly provocative reduces even the most impressively technical films.

Sadly, the technical aspects are impressive – there can be no faulting Seidl’s abilities as a filmmaker, just his intentions – as the half-documentary style adds authenticity and weight to the events, as the director consciously takes a backseat to let his semi-improvised approach unveil magic little moments that planning can’t account for. If you can look past how Seidl actually presents his characters, there is something to be said of what the director gets out of his actors: the director mixed professionals with amateurs for added authenticity and they are all wholly believable. Unfortunately for them, as Seidl obviously intends, it also means they are almost universally repugnant.

But appreciation of the technical side of the film won’t rescue it: on the whole the experience is uncomfortable and largely distasteful The lasting image of Paradise: Love is not one of defiant socio-political outrage, as it should be, but of a young black man, dancing erotically in front of four middle-aged, hungry-looking women, practically frothing at the pants with a bow tied around his cock.

Like I said, grotesque.

The Upside: The improvisation on show is good, and in some ways you can manfully applaud those who took part, and there are a few reasonably successful jokes in there if you can ignore the problems.

The Downside: I couldn’t ignore the problems, and found the entire situation baffling and distasteful.

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