This week's top pick is Ulrich Seidl's provocative film "Paradise: Love". The first in a trilogy, it tells the story of a 50-year old Austrian woman Teresa (Margarethe Tiesel) on a "sex holiday" in Kenya, taking advantage of the virile local men. Overweight and single, Teresa's trip becomes a search for the affection that is missing in her life. On paper, it sounds like a tough watch, made only for the inherent shock value. I certainly assumed so myself. However, the film is about more than just sex. Indeed, there are scenes of graphic nudity but these are just narrative devices to explore its larger themes.
Using an observational style of filmmaking to rival the likes of Steve McQueen, Seidl perfectly captures a typical vacation in one of these Third World countries. Based on my own experiences, everything felt very authentic, from the harassment by souvenir merchants to the frustrating language barrier. Of course, the aspect I wasn't familiar with was the sex business at the heart of the plot.
Lined up along the beach waiting for the white women, the Kenyan men aren't much different from your typical prostitutes lined up along a dark street. However, the social dynamics involved don't overtly present the situation as such. Fooled by their declarations of love, Teresa engages in sexual relationships with these men. As she goes on her various exploits, it becomes apparent that this paradise is an illusion and the "love" she receives is merely a business transaction.
The more we learn about this situation, you're likely to wonder who is the victim in the scenario. Of course, the usual response is to assume that the wealthy foreigner is taking unfair advantage of the underprivileged African man. However, this film instead shows these men as rather shrewd opportunists. In using flattery to profit from these rejected women of the superficial First World, they are willing participants in a disturbing cultural practice. It makes for fascinating viewing as every scene is purposeful in showing the despicable objectification from both sides. Most importantly though, the script carefully elicits the audience's sympathy for both parties.
Overall, "Paradise: Love" is an thorough example of director-driven cinema. The screenplay and Tiesel's courageous performance are essential but the director's clear, purposeful vision is always present. Despite a seemingly austere visual style, the thematic depth is undeniable. In exploring the societal constructs of beauty and poverty, in addition to the politics of race, gender and sex, Seidl manages to make a statement without overtly making a manipulative "message film". As a result, his deft, non-judgmental touch takes this from mere arthouse provocation to something more deeply engaging. It's still unlikely to appeal to most, but for me this is a vital piece of work.