Ulrich Seidl’s controversial exploration of middle-aged lust and mutual exploitation re-examined.
Austrian film-maker Ulrich Seidl most assuredly does not create uplifting, escapist entertainment for the multiplex-going masses. He does not pander to the feeble-minded or prudish, nor does he insult the intelligence of the thinking audience by using cinema to preach crushingly obvious moral lessons by way of facile stereotypes and contrived storylines. Seidl’s camera observes without judgement, coldly recording his deeply-flawed (and therefore entirely credible) characters wrestling with troubled relationships, complex emotional needs, and the choking constricts of modern existence. There’s a brutal truth at the heart of his work that surely speaks to us all if we let it penetrate our defences.
If Seidl’s work is ‘difficult’, it’s partially because he employs a cinematic language staunchly at odds with the mainstream; a documentary style that firmly rejects elaborate roving camerawork in favour of static meticulously-composed tableaux and intimate fly-on-the-wall observation. Rather than following a conventional script, his performers (a combination of professional actors and amateurs) are individually given loose instructions before each take and then left to interact with the other players in the scene, bringing some of their own personality into the dialogue. The result is an uncanny realism and a level of subtlety that demands concentration from the audience. While all drama stems from the creator’s desire to manipulate our thoughts and emotions, Seidl largely resists any attempt to narrow or mould our interpretation of what we are seeing. Although there are hints of the auteur’s own worldview, Seidl’s work is not overtly philosophical in itself but it certainly encourages such deep reflection in its audience. His characters’ motives, desires, and behaviour are largely left for us to judge, with our cerebral evaluation taking precedence over push-button emotional reactions.
2012 saw the release of the first instalment in Seidl’s Paradise trilogy. Focussing on the lives of three Austrian women from the same family, the project was originally conceived as a single feature but, during production, Seidl decided that there was sufficient substance to merit three individual films. Paradise: Love centres on Teresa (Margarete Tiesel), a 50- year-old single mother of a sullen teenage girl, who takes a short break from her thankless, lonely existence at a Kenyan beach resort. While sunbathing, she meets another middle-aged woman, the uninhibited, lust-driven Freundin (Inge Maux), who persuades her to pursue sexual liaisons with the local young men. After a tentative start, Teresa has several encounters each resulting in despair and frustration as she gradually realises that her search for affection and appreciation, rather than casual sex, is both futile and costly. To compound her misery, Teresa’s daughter fails to return her calls and forgets her birthday. Meanwhile, her newfound friends arrange a surprise party where the disenchanted Teresa attempts to enter into the spirit of frivolous hedonism enjoyed by the others.
Much attention has been focussed on Paradise: Love’s supposedly explicit sexual content but it seems that the novelty of seeing overweight middle-aged women engaging in foreplay with young men on a cinema screen lies at the root of any controversy. The actual depiction of sex is far from graphic or seedy. Interestingly, the media’s queasy reaction highlights one of the film’s key themes: the way our culture insidiously conspires to rob middle-aged women of their sexuality and self-esteem. The barely-concealed sense of repulsion found in certain reviews has more to do with seeing less-than-perfect, ageing bodies on display – as opposed to the lithe idealised forms presented by Hollywood – than any lack of tact or desire to shock on Seidl’s part. One of many examples of the film-maker holding a mirror to our faces, forcing us to confront our own ugly opinions. In fact, Paradise: Love is not about sex, or love, although, of course, both have a significant place in the film’s identity. Its overriding theme is the human need to be appreciated and valued, and the common tendency to define ourselves according to the views of others. Essentially, the film charts the misadventures of a desperate, battered ego as it goes in perilous search for reassurance that it still has some value.
Teresa’s encounters are characterised not by heated passion but a longing for tenderness, however illusory. She instructs her lovers to gaze into her eyes – to look beyond “the crow’s feet and big bum” –, chastising them for roughly grabbing at her breasts and demonstrating at length how she wishes to be caressed. It’s deeply uncomfortable to witness her undignified self-delusion as her lovers comply with her demands, lavishing her with the praise she yearns for. We know, as she must, subconsciously, that the men are merely interested in the payment they will receive. And, predictably, when the dawn comes and the fake smiles have faded, she is coerced into funding hospital treatment for their family members and donating money to a dilapidated village school.
However, we have little empathy for the reckless, foolish Teresa. Earlier in the film, she is shown to be a bigoted bully as her and a friend mercilessly make fun of a barman, encouraging him to say ridiculous words in German. Her desire to be adored appears entirely selfish, with the forced, theatrical affection and self-absorbed content of the messages left for her daughter indicating an awkwardness in expressing genuine love for another. The penultimate scene, where she aggressively berates a shy African boy after he politely refuses to obey a sexual command, shows an emerging bitter hardness but, in retrospect, all of her encounters are marked by stone-cold self-gratification. It’s tempting to perceive her behaviour as exploitative but the same term could equally apply to the conniving ‘beach boys’. Of course, the key difference is that the money-grubbing conduct of the locals stems from necessity whereas Teresa and her cohorts – unable to find the desired male attention in their culture – exploit their impoverished predicament solely for the purpose of pampering their spoiled Western egos. A stark illustration of the differing priorities between the two cultures.
Paradise: Love is, suffice to say, a deeply ironic title. The reality of Teresa’s experiences is far from the luxurious, relaxing holiday she’d clearly envisaged. Taking a wider perspective, Seidl’s film seems to suggest that the whole concept of a holiday resort, populated by rich Europeans, located in an area of third world poverty is problematic. The cultural clash is perfectly encapsulated by a single Greenaway-like image depicting a row of eerily still, pallid bodies sunbathing on a beach divided by a guarded cordon; while on the other side African men are poised, waiting for solitary tourists to cross the threshold and buy their wares. Later, a comically dour jazz band, decked in absurd, humiliating zebra costumes, plays in the hotel bar, their miserable expressions betraying a contempt for the well-meaning but patronising audience. This “paradise” is actually an unwelcoming, hostile place where most tourists choose to lie corpselike in the sun rather than be assailed by beach hawkers or acknowledge the deprivation that lies just outside the hotel perimeter.
As Teresa, Margarete Tiesel gives a fearless, wholly convincing performance. Her naturalistic portrayal ensures that the character’s emotional agony and desperation are always evident but never histrionic, while her occasional aggressive outbursts are gripping and entirely credible. Despite the use of local non-actors, the performances of the supporting cast maintain a consistent sense of realism. Peter Kazungu is compelling as ‘beach boy’ Mungu, dramatically switching from a charming, eager-to-please persona to a passive-aggressive beggar once Teresa’s ‘adoration’ has been secured. Compared to Seidl’s earlier masterpieces Import/Export (2007) and Dog Days (2001), the main protagonists are more substantial as personalities which is possibly the result of a much smaller cast. There’s also less ambiguity to the behaviour of the characters and a directness to the storytelling that makes the film more accessible than the sometimes elusive, multi-faceted quality of the director’s previous films.
But Paradise: Love remains a challenging experience. Apart from fleeting moments of sardonic humour, this is a work that dwells on loneliness, insoluble dissatisfaction, and the despair that can come with the ageing process. The subject matter, artistic approach and air of despondency will be unpalatable for many; some will accuse Seidl of misanthropy. Even if the director’s worldview is ridden with cynicism and misery – and he disputes this – there is no denying that Paradise: Love reflects many uncomfortable truths about the human condition. Evading the darkness within us – and avoiding art that unflinchingly probes our bleakest thoughts and emotions – only serves to stifle intellect and negate honest, open discussion.